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Obama Prohibits Future Oil Leases in Much of Arctic, Atlantic

  • Wayne Lee

FILE - The oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Elliott Bay in Seattle, May 14, 2015. The rig was the first of two drilling rigs Royal Dutch Shell was outfitting for Arctic oil exploration. President Barack Obama has designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

FILE - The oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Elliott Bay in Seattle, May 14, 2015. The rig was the first of two drilling rigs Royal Dutch Shell was outfitting for Arctic oil exploration. President Barack Obama has designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

President Barack Obama has declared a ban on offshore oil and natural gas drilling throughout large areas of the Arctic and the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, an apparent attempt to cement his environmental legacy in his waning days in office.

The White House announced the bans Tuesday in conjunction with the Canadian government, which also placed a moratorium on drilling in its Arctic waters, although the provision is subject to periodic review.

In exercising his executive powers, Obama used a provision in a 1953 law to permanently ban offshore leases in the designated areas. The law states that "the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf."

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club environmental group, told VOA the joint announcement "is an important step forward in our effort to move away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy."

Brune acknowledged the incoming presidential administration of Donald Trump and Congress could attempt to reverse Obama's decision and open "one of the most pristine areas on the planet" to oil and gas drilling.

"It's likely to be an extreme presidency, and we will give the next administration the political fight of their lives if they try to undermine the bedrock environmental safeguards for clean air, clean water and clean energy that have been put into place over the past few years and over the past several decades," Brune said.

FILE - Scott Thompson, left, leans against his surfboard as he joins a gathering at a rally in Asbury Park, N.Y., to oppose federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, Jan. 31, 2016. President Barack Obama has now designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

FILE - Scott Thompson, left, leans against his surfboard as he joins a gathering at a rally in Asbury Park, N.Y., to oppose federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, Jan. 31, 2016. President Barack Obama has now designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, thinks the bans should be reversed.

"It's very disappointing. It completely disregards our national security interests and the huge opportunities we see here for good-paying jobs, jobs in areas such as shipyards, steelworkers, building, construction, trade-type work and even small businesses," API Director Eric Milito told VOA.

Milito said Obama's executive action was "an unprecedented move to go after one of the largest expected oil deposits in the world in the offshore Alaska area," which is thought to hold 20 billion to 30 billion barrels of oil. The decision can be reversed "quickly" next year, Milito said, noting that then-President George W. Bush reinstated in 2008 about 50 million acres (20,000,000 hectares) of land that had previously been withdrawn from oil and gas drilling.

Obama's action bans drilling in about 98 percent of Arctic waters owned by the U.S. government, which totals about 46,500,000 hectares. It also bans drilling in an area off the Atlantic Coast that stretches from southeastern Virginia to the Canadian border.

The Obama administration cited environmental concerns for the moratoriums. The administration also cited importance of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in providing subsistence for native Alaskans and the vulnerability of the ecosystem to an oil spill.

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