Both Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau recently announced plans to indefinitely protect massive amounts of shoreline in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from new offshore oil and gas drilling initiatives. While neither measure will end drilling projects already in motion, they will prevent any new drilling indefinitely.
Obama’s plan is based on a little-known law from 1953 called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which protects large parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic, as well as several canyons in the Atlantic between Massachusetts and Virginia, from offshore drilling. By tying his new plan to this older law, experts are suggesting that Obama has very likely prevented any future administration from being able to overturn his decision.
“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth,” said the White House in a statement. “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 Beaufort and Chukchi seas are home to several endangered and nearly endangered species, including the bowhead whale, fin whale, Pacific walrus, and polar bear. Many different species of coral are also native to the area.
In addition, these locations are crucial for local fisheries, which serve as huge economic powerhouses for the nearby communities.
While many organizations focusing on natural resources, environmental protection, and conservation issues praised the decision, others were less enthused. The American Petroleum Institute argued that removing these key areas from future leasing opportunities could cause national security and economic issues by minimizing the ability of the US in particular to provide its own oil instead of having to rely on foreign nations.
With the incoming administration including the CEO of ExxonMobil as well as a climate change denier, it’s likely that these efforts from Obama and Trudeau will receive some extreme pushback. That pushback’s effectiveness, however, is up in the air at the moment and would likely require Congress to undo its own Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana senior vice president for the US, notes that there are potential upsides not just for the environment, but also for the economy with these preservation acts. “This decision will help protect existing lucrative coastal tourism and fishing businesses from offshore drilling, which promises smaller, short-lived returns and threatens coastal livelihoods,” Savitz said in a statement.