Environment | Politics

Obama cites Native subsistence needs in ban on offshore drilling






An arch made out of whale bones serves as the "Gateway to the Arctic" in Barrow, Alaska. Photo by Traveling Otter

President Barack Obama closed off more than 100 million acres in Alaska to offshore drilling in a bid to protect Native subsistence areas from development.

The decision applies to 115 million acres in the Arctic Ocean, including areas where Native communities engage in fishing, whaling and other subsistence activities. Another 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic Ocean were also declared off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

“The President’s bold action recognizes the vulnerable marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, their critical and irreplaceable ecological value, as well as the unique role that commercial fishing and subsistence use plays in the regions’ economies and cultures,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release. “The withdrawal will help build the resilience of these vital ecosystems, provide refuges for at-risk species, sustain commercial fisheries and subsistence traditions, and create natural laboratories for scientists to monitor and explore the impacts of climate change.”

The broad directive -- which covers all of the Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the Beaufort Sea -- drew fire from Republicans in Alaska. They plan to work with their colleagues and with president-elect Donald Trump to reverse the decision.


President Barack Obama has protected more than 125 million acres in the Arctic Ocean from development. Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

"The only thing more shocking than this reckless, short-sighted, last-minute gift to the extreme environmental agenda is that President Obama had the nerve to claim he is doing Alaska a favor,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a press release.

According to an Interior Department fact sheet, Jewell "recommended" the closure of the areas to development. But it doesn't say specifically whether any tribes or Native organizations asked for a ban on drilling.

"Each year, Native communities across northern Alaska participate in a bowhead whale hunt that is central to their cultural tradition and vital for subsistence," the document reads.

Some Alaska Natives oppose offshore drilling out of concerns for whales, seals and other marine life. But the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in the past has endorsed "mitigation measures that promote offshore oil and gas development while protecting marine mammal subsistence resources and traditions."

And some Native corporations that are engaged in the energy industry support development, both offshore and onshore. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation plans to "fight" Obama's declaration.

“This decision will not stop our climate from changing, but it will inhibit our North Slope communities from developing the infrastructure, communications capability and technology necessary for growth," President and CEO Rex A. Rock Sr., said in a press release. "It’s a move which was made without any consultation from the largest private land owners in the U.S. Arctic and yet we will be the ones forced to live with the consequence."

Obama withdrew the areas under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. His administration believes the decision can't be reversed by the incoming president but opponents could turn to Congress.

Combined with prior actions, Obama has withdrawn 125 acres in the Arctic from development.

Read More on the Story:
Obama prohibits offshore oil drilling in most U.S. Arctic waters (Alaska Dispatch News 12/20)
President Obama bans oil drilling in large areas of Atlantic and Arctic oceans (The Washington Post 12/20)
Obama bans future oil leases in much of Arctic, Atlantic (AP 12/20)
Obama Bans Drilling in Parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic (The New York Times 12/20)