WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is blocking new oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean, handing a victory to environmentalists who say industrial activity in the icy waters will harm whales, walruses and other wildlife and exacerbate global warming.
A five-year offshore drilling plan announced on Friday blocks planned sale of new oil and gas drilling rights in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska. The plan allows drilling to go forward in Alaska’s Cook Inlet southwest of Anchorage.
The blueprint for drilling from 2017 to 2022 can be rewritten by President-elect Donald Trump, in a process that could take months or years.
Besides Cook Inlet, the plan also allows drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, long the centre of U.S. offshore oil production. Ten of the 11 lease sales proposed in the five-year plan are in the Gulf, mostly off the coasts of Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.
Confirming a decision announced this spring, the five-year plan also bars drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.
“The plan focuses lease sales in the best places — those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict and established infrastructure – and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
“Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward,” Jewell said.
Industry representatives reacted bitterly, calling the decision political and not supported by the facts.
“The arrogance of the decision is unfathomable, but unfortunately not surprising,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an industry group.
“Once again, we see the attitude that Washington knows best — an attitude that contributed to last week’s election results,” Luthi said, referring to Trump’s surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
More than 70 per cent of Alaskans, including a majority of Alaska Natives, support offshore drilling, Luthi said, as do the state’s three Republican members of Congress.
Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice-president of Oceana, an environmental group, hailed the announcement and praised Obama and Jewell for “protecting our coasts from dirty and dangerous offshore drilling.”
The announcement “demonstrates a commitment to prioritizing common sense, economics and science ahead of industry favouritism and politics as usual,” Savitz said.
Nearly 400 scientists signed a letter this summer urging Obama to eliminate the possibility of Arctic offshore drilling.