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Obama protects Arctic and Atlantic waters from offshore drilling

21 December 2016

US President Barack Obama indefinitely blocked offshore drilling in areas of the Atlantic Ocean and in Arctic waters, a move aimed at advancing environmental protection during his final days in office. The Arctic protections are a joint partnership with Canada and are designed to protect a "sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth," the White House said in a statement.

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"They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region's harsh conditions is limited," the White House added. "By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels."

Obama's action designates 31 Atlantic canyons "off limits to oil and gas exploration and development activity," totalling 3.8 million acres, according to the administration. It provides the same protections to much of the Arctic's waters, covering the "vast majority of US waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas," totalling 115 million acres. Canada is doing the same to all Canadian Arctic waters, the joint statement adds.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all Arctic Canadian waters would be designated as indefinitely off limits for future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.

Obama took these actions by invoking a law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, a 1953 law that allows presidents to block the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights and makes it difficult for their successors to reverse the decision. But major questions remain about what will happen if the incoming Trump administration attempts to reverse this action.

Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute, told Reuters: “We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy.”

The president-elect has vowed to unleash the country’s untapped energy reserves and exploit fossil fuels. He has previously questioned the science of climate change, threatened to tear up the Paris climate agreement and appointed climate-change deniers in his cabinet.

But few energy companies have expressed a wish to drill any time soon off the north or east coasts thanks to abundant cheap shale oil in North Dakota and Texas. Exploratory drilling is costly and risky, as evidenced by Shell’s failed Arctic drilling program in 2013.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration reversed course on a plan that would have allowed Atlantic offshore drilling after opposition from local communities and environmentalists.

Then, the administration designated the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it has protected an Atlantic area about the size of New Jersey from deep-sea commercial fishing.

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