President Barack Obama ordered an indefinite ban on offshore drilling in areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, a "gift" to environmental groups with a month left before the Trump administration takes power.
The Dec. 20 move, which covers 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic and 115 million acres in the Arctic, follows a ban put in place in the final draft of the 2017-2022 federal oil and gas offshore drilling plan. The drilling plan, which will take effect before the Obama administration leaves office, had already eliminated potential exploration and production in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the Alaska coast through 2022. The previous offshore plan had allowed for drilling in those areas, which spurred significant controversy.
Concurrently with the U.S. action, Canada put off limits to drilling its portion of Arctic waters. The nations in a joint statement cited, among other reasons, "the important, irreplaceable values of its Arctic waters for Indigenous, Alaska Native and local communities' subsistence and cultures, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and scientific research."
Royal Dutch Shell plc was the only company to actively explore the possibility of production in the Chukchi Sea, but it scrapped those plans earlier in 2016. The company took a $4.1 billion loss in the process.
A ban on drilling on the Atlantic shelf, which was also barred from exploration and production activity in the 2017-2022 plan, was supported by several state governments and the U.S. Navy, which is active in the region.
The League of Conservation Voters was one of the first groups to praise the move, calling the executive order "an incredible holiday gift."
"The Arctic Ocean is ground zero for the impacts of climate change, and any oil production there would be decades away and inconsistent with addressing climate change before it is too late. ... President Obama understands this reality and showed true statesmanship in working with Canada to provide the magnificent Arctic Ocean with lasting protections it so richly deserves," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said. "We are also excited to see additional protections put in place for particularly sensitive areas in the Atlantic Ocean, which is great news for the countless residents, tourism and fishing businesses, and elected leaders up and down the coast who have been speaking out against the risks of offshore drilling."
The Arctic Energy Center accused Obama of catering to special interest groups that have supported him throughout his presidency. The center, citing a recent poll by FTI Consulting, said 76% of Alaskans and 79% of native Alaskans are in favor of Arctic offshore energy development.
"The administration has always justified a ban on Arctic development because of an alleged lack of local support or industry interest," Arctic Energy Center spokesman Lucas Frances said in a statement. "The Arctic Energy Center's research categorically shows that that is simply not true, with almost three quarters of Native respondents supporting offshore energy. Taken with last week's news that sales of Beaufort Sea and North Slope leases generated $18 million, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Obama administration is playing politics with the future of Alaska."
The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group representing drillers, hinted that the industry will not have to wait long to find a more friendly White House to work with on energy policy. "IPAA looks forward to working with the Trump administration on new job-creating solutions that will balance thoughtful, environmental protections with safe, responsible energy production and the tremendous economic and consumer benefits that come along with it," Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Political Affairs Dan Naatz said in a statement.