U.S., Canada say Arctic waters now off limits
The majority of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the entirety of the Canadian Arctic are now off limits for future offshore oil and gas leasing.
"Today, in partnership with our neighbors and allies in Canada, the United States is taking historic steps to build a strong Arctic economy, preserve a healthy Arctic ecosystem and protect our fragile Arctic waters, including designating the bulk of our Arctic water and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing," President Obama said in a statement.
The joint announcement issued by both countries on Tuesday set off a firestorm of responses from both sides of the aisle with conservation groups and a handful of Arctic communities lauding the move and many of the state's business and political leaders criticizing it.
"We will fight this legacy move by the outgoing president with every resource at our disposal," said Arctic Slope Regional Corp. President and CEO Rex A. Rock Sr. in a statement.
Looking at a map, most of the waters north of the Arctic coast from Point Hope, past Kaktovik to the Canadian border are included, totaling about 115 million acres.
"The Arctic is changing, and change brings opportunity. In order to adapt to these changes, we must have a plan moving forward and a robust economy to support it. That the president would ignore such a vocal, involved and outspoken voice from the Native community to put the final touches on his own environmental legacy is unfortunate," said Arctic Iñupiat Offshore Chairman Anthony Edwardsen in a statement.
The decision hinges on a section of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that deals with leasing waters for resource development, a move that was called into question by Alaska's Republican congressional delegation almost a week prior.
In a letter to the president issued on Dec. 15, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young implored the administration to reconsider the plan to withdraw Alaska's waters.
"The governor of Alaska, the leadership of the North Slope and Northwest Arctic Boroughs, the majority of the tribal leadership representing Alaska Natives who live in the Arctic, a supermajority of the members of the Alaska State Legislature, and an overwhelming majority of the Alaskan people also oppose the withdrawal of acreage within these areas," the letter stated.
They argued that the lands act was established to provide for the "responsible development of our offshore areas," and that any development must already undergo rigorous review through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
They also made the case that withdrawing areas from consideration would violate the provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which they say contain "multiple 'no more' clauses that reflect Alaska's already significant contributions to the wilderness of our nation...Withdrawing acreage in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf would explicitly break that promise and continue to restrict Alaskans' access to our own lands and waters."
As did a handful of Native corporations and local leaders in the two boroughs, the delegation also pointed to the potential economic consequences of reduced access to oil and gas development.
"Unlike the Northern Aleutian basin, which you withdrew from leasing in 2010, industry remains highly interest in development off of Alaska's northern coast. For example, Caelus announced a major find in Smith Bay in October 2016 and is continuing to explore its potential," they wrote. "The Arctic Slope Regional Corp. announced in November 2016 that it will purchase 21 leases in the Beaufort Sea. A withdrawal in the Arctic OCS would limit the incredible opportunities in this region and destroy our ability to create jobs, generate revenue, and increase national security from them."
This is where the conversation takes a turn depending on whether it's being held nationally or statewide. In the joint statement, the White House pointed out that offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic has not accounted for much of the country's total for use over the last several years. While Alaskans fear the impact the loss of potential future development could have on the state, the ripple effect could be less on a larger scale.
"In 2015, just 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic and Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the Arctic will not occur," Obama noted. "That's why looking forward, we must continue to focus on economic empowerment for Arctic communities beyond this one sector. My administration has proposed and directed unprecedented federal investments in the region, but more must be done - by the federal government, the private sector and philanthropy - to enhance infrastructure and our collective security, such as the acquisition of additional icebreaking capacity, and to lay the groundwork for economic growth in the industries of the future."
With more than 90 percent of the state's economy tied up in oil and gas, though not all offshore, Alaska, too, has been talking about the need to diversify in recent years.
Since the U.S. began its chairmanship of the Arctic Council last year, Alaska has seen investment in the state and its economy grow, both through general interest and attention and through financial support from federal grants and nonprofits working in the region.
Since the start of President Obama's lame duck period, the White House has come out with a series of announcements focused on protections and allocations for the U.S. Arctic.
In November, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the cancellation of offshore lease sales through 2022, meaning through the duration of the next five-year plan.
Earlier this month, the White House announced a series of funding opportunities totaling about $27 million for communities and organizations around the state with much of the support heading for the Bering Strait region and Northwest Arctic specifically for economic and infrastructure development.
Simultaneously, the president issued an executive order establishing the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, which took a small chunk of the Bering Sea out of leasing consideration and established working groups dedicated to climate change resilience along the western coast.
The latter order was praised by the Bering Sea Elders Group, comprising leaders from 40 communities and tribes in western Alaska. While Native leaders across much of the Slope an
Northwest and corporation leaders from the same area have come out against the changes, there are many who also support the environmental protections.
Those include village leaders working with the Alaska Wilderness League like Nuiqsut's Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, Fort Yukon's Bernadette Demientieff, Point Hope's Mae Hank, and Hooper Bay's Ole Lake, who released a statement following Tuesday's announcement.
"From Nuiqsut to Hooper Bay, we would like to thank you for today's announcement protecting the Arctic Ocean. We thank you as subsistence users, and together we seek to make sure that future generations can continue to live off the clean waters of the Arctic Ocean long into the future, like they have for thousands of years," they wrote.
The decision includes three key considerations: a science-based approach to oil and gas, low impact shipping corridors, and science-based management of Arctic fisheries.
For the first, Canada noted it is establishing an Arctic Policy Framework which will bring together territorial and provincial governments with indigenous leaders to focus on education, infrastructure, and economic development outside of offshore oil and gas.
"The framework will include an Inuit-specific component, created in partnership with Inuit, as Inuit Nunangat comprises over a third of Canada's land mass and over half of Canada's coastline, and as Inuit modern treaties govern this jurisdictional space," the White House noted in its statement.
Canada will also be working toward reducing its reliance on diesel and developing renewable energy sources over the coming years. For conservation, Canada will be paying close attention to sensitive areas that still have an abundance of summer sea ice to protect them as ice zones, of sorts.
On the second point about shipping, both the U.S. and Canada are coming up with policies to govern shipping in Arctic waters, which are becoming more accessible for greater periods of time each year as the north warms.
The U.S. Coast Guard is beginning its Port Access Route Study in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that will identify areas to be avoided along with safe shipping routes.
Canada is doing similar work and both countries are also developing plans to phase out the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic to mitigate spills.
Finally, with regard to fisheries, both countries in March joined forces to call for an international agreement to prohibit unregulated fisheries in shared Arctic waters.
"Both countries reaffirm their commitment to a legally binding agreement to prevent unregulated commercial fisheries in the Arctic High Seas until an internationally recognized Regional Fishery Management Organization is in place to provide effective management," the White House stated.
In official responses on Dec. 20, organizations and leaders did not provide much comment on these subsections of the announcement, but rather focused on leasing for oil and gas as the crux of the issue for the state.
With a month left to go for the Obama Administration, it is unclear at this point what kind of official challenges to this decision may be brought forward. However, President-Elect Donald Trump and his administration will not be able to immediately overturn any of President Obama's most recent decisions immediately upon taking office.