Obama bans drilling in Bering Sea

Barack Obama, the outgoing U.S. president, has closed off more Arctic acreage for offshore oil and gas exploration.

The Obama administration in November removed the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, offshore Alaska, from the proposed 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas lease sale program, and the president has now blocked parts of the Bering Sea from any future drilling, via an executive order delineating a part of the Bering Sea as the “Northern Bering Sea Climate Resiliance Area.”

Apart from this, the executive order made it Federal policy to support the continued prohibition on bottom trawling, “which destroys sensitive benthic ecosystems.”

Also, regarding the increase in shipping through the Bering Strait, the executive order has directed the Coast Guard to give “careful consideration to community recommendations regarding environmentally sensitive Areas to Be Avoided (ATBAs).”

The White House said on Friday the move would help protect the Arctic and “enhance the resilience of the Alaskan Arctic environment and the sustainability of Alaskan native communities with the creation of the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.”

This means that, under the executive order two offshore planning areas have been withdrawn from disposition by leasing “for a time without specific expiration.”

According to the White House, these areas are the Norton Basin Planning Area; and the Outer Continental Shelf lease blocks within the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s St. Matthew-Hall Planning Area lying within 25 nautical miles of St. Lawrence Island.

This withdrawal prevents consideration of these areas for future oil or gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development, or production, the executive order reads.

According to a statement on Friday, the five year leasing plans issued by the Department of the Interior do not include plans for leasing in the withdrawn areas, so there will not need to be changes to those plans to reflect the withdrawal. The total area withdrawn from leasing through this Executive Order is 40,300 square miles.

In a White House press briefing post the announcement on Friday, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz was asked to provide the rationale behind the decision and whether the move was, “as some Republicans have been warning us about, the beginning of a raft of environmental rules that you’re going to close out and rush before the inauguration?“

Schultz said the move was in response to requests “we’ve gotten from indigenous people up there that the coastal tribes along the Northern Bering Sea and the Bering Strait requested that the federal government take this action to protect the health of marine ecosystems of the Northern Bering Sea while maintaining opportunities for sustainable fishing and sustainable economic development.”

Fierce response from Alaska

The Alaska Congressional Delegation, who sees president Obama’s actions as “parting shots in Alaska,” has slammed the move.

“Once again, the Obama administration has used unilateral action to hurt Alaskans. This executive order, drafted behind closed doors, unilaterally closes fishing grounds, removes oil and gas leasing, and creates hurdles to shipping, all with the stroke of a pen—without any consultation with the State, Alaska’s Congressional delegation, or public notice, consultation, or comment,” said Senator Dan Sullivan.

“This is the first time we have ever seen the term ‘climate resilience area’ in Alaska or anywhere else,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said. “We have no idea what that designation is supposed to mean, what legal authority it is supposed to rest on, what the limitations for it will be, or what it will mean for subsistence, shipping, fishing, and other activities in western and northern Alaska.

Murkowski added: “To me, this sure sounds like a euphemism for a marine monument, because it locks up over 112,000 square miles of Alaska waters and seems destined to impact a wide range of communities, tribes, and industries in our state. While I strongly support meaningful consultation with tribes, this opens the door to a whole host of unknowns, and could easily be misapplied to block even the most responsible Arctic subsistence, activities, and development.”

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