Obama’s Arctic drilling ban: Conservation trumps oil

The Arctic waters recently protected by President Obama are home to polar bears, bowhead whales, and walruses and constitute one of the world’s most important fisheries. PHOTO: © IFAW/U. Golman/www.urigolman.com Some families open one present on Christmas Eve, but President Obama apparently likes to get an even bigger jump-start on the festivities with a gift to the planet.

In a surprise announcement Tuesday, the White House declared a huge portion of the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic off-limits to oil and gas drilling, protecting almost 120 million acres of federally-owned waters.

The Atlantic reserves encompass a chain of deep-water “coral canyons” that provide vibrant habitat for marine life, and comprise important territory for critically-endangered north Atlantic right whales. The Arctic waters are home to polar bears, bowhead whales, walrus (among other threatened marine mammals) and constitute one of the world’s most important fisheries.

As global warming wreaks havoc with Arctic temperatures and melts the polar ice cap, it is an imperative to reduce other pressures on these species – such as drilling, which can increase sonic exposure to deadly levels, result in massive oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and otherwise feed humans’ addiction to oil, perpetuating the vicious cycle.

The Obama Administration has made addressing climate change a cornerstone of federal policy over the last half-decade. Unlike many other environmental rules that the Trump team and Republican leaders in Congress have promised to overturn, this new move may be hard to attack head-on, due to a rarely-used provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) that gives Presidents the authority to withdraw areas from the federal leasing program – perhaps permanently. Canada also announced a similar ban on drilling in the region for at least five years.

The oil industry will undoubtedly challenge the move in court but experts are split over what the likely outcome would be. If Obama’s designation holds up to judicial review, it would be a momentous achievement for the planet. Gifts like that don’t come every holiday season.


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