Obama bans Arctic drilling

US president Barack Obama and the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau have jointly declared a sweeping ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic. Many believe the move was designed to thwart the pro-fossil fuels agenda of president-elect Donald Trump.

The two left-leaning leaders said environmental concerns drove their decision, especially in the Arctic, a relatively unexplored region that has come under intense scrutiny among energy companies as global warming has melted ice that previously impeded access to petroleum deposits under the ocean floor.

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth,” said President Obama 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 announcement blocks 115 million acres to drilling in the Arctic and 3.8 million acres from southern Virginia to the northern edge of Maine on the Canadian border, officials said. In the Arctic, the ban protects polar bears and whales. In the Atlantic, it preserves ecologically unique coral canyons.

The ban is clearly intended to present Trump with a challenge when the Republican real estate mogul takes office in January.

Denying climate change and vowing to create jobs in coal mining and other industries that produce greenhouse gas, Trump has vowed to roll back many of Obama’s environmental triumphs.

Because Republicans who controlled Congress have refused to support Obama’s agenda, many of those triumphs involved creative readings of laws that grant the US president substantial powers.

In his Tuesday announcement, Obama cited the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which allows the president to “withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the Outer Continental Shelf”. The law does not explicitly allow the president to reopen lands to drilling once they have been withdrawn.

Trump didn’t comment on Obama’s move on Tuesday. But environmentalists said conservative American judges who often insist on interpret laws literally would be in a bind if they were inclined to reverse Obama’s decision.

“No president has ever rescinded a previous president’s permanent withdrawal of offshore areas from oil and gas development,” said Marissa Knodel, an activist at Friends of the Earth in a statement. “If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court.”

By John Dyer, Boston

Image credit: Statoil

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