Obama bans offshore drilling in large portions of Arctic and Atlantic oceans

(Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign via Flickr Creative Commons)

With just a few weeks left in his presidency, President Barack Obama banned offshore drilling in large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans this week. Climate change and environmental activists quickly hailed the decision; the Alaska delegation to the U.S. Congress swiftly condemned it. The preemptive action comes as president-elect Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with climate change deniers and fossil-fuel industry insiders.

Made in concert with a similar action by his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Obama said the ban is designed to protect fragile ecosystems and block massive infrastructure investment in the carbon economy that exacerbates climate change and slows the transition to renewable energy. Obama didn’t issue an executive order, but rather used somewhat obscure authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

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Nell Abram: Rosemary Ahtuangaruak joins us to discuss the implications of the ban. The Inupiaq grandmother, former mayor of Barrows, Alaska and Environmental Justice Advisor for the Alaska Wilderness League, says that the decline of ice already caused by climate change increases the risk of drilling in the Arctic. Rosemary, welcome to FSRN.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of our concerns.

NA: First, the president’s action indefinitely bans offshore drilling in the northern Atlantic and in 98 percent of federally administered lands and waters in the Alaskan Arctic. Your reaction?

RA: This has been a very important decision that has been discussed with our people for generations. The administration watched what has happened in failed efforts in the gulf and listening to the story of the people and their lives that were changed and devastated created a hesitancy when you see the reality of trying to respond in a harsh environment. We don’t have the stores you have in other places in our villages in the Arctic. You can’t depend on trying to feed your family when it costs us $14-17 for a gallon of milk. And our heating fuels can be $11 a gallon, and we’re at 40 below. For us, it’s about utilizing the gifts that the one above, that he has provided in our land and waters to feed our families the nutrients that are important for our bodies to be strong and healthy.

NA: Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued its five-year plan for offshore oil leases, with ten in the Gulf of Mexico and just one in the Arctic – the Cook Inlet Program Area. That seems like a small number, so why the staunch opposition?

RA: The changes that are occurring in the Arctic – we don’t have the infrastructure in place to respond to an adverse event. The infrastructure that has been in place was not designed to be in place without the protective mechanisms of the Arctic environment having a large ice sheet. It is protected, but when you have fall storms and 30 foot waves and you do not have the protection of the permafrost in the ice, the tremendous amount of erosion that is occurring on the Arctic coast, there are some places where you’re going through hundreds of feet every year. The devastation of these changes are impacting our ecosystems by putting on additional threats to try to develop more infrastructure associated to change our lands and waters and risk the importance of having a clean environment to feed our families is not the same.

NA: The action bans drilling, but what about other offshore activities, like seismic exploration?

RA: For me, seismic exploration can be just as damaging to the ecosystem as oil and gas development. We have had tremendous impact to our subsystems. When you cause seismic activity, it comes between the migration of the Bowhead whale in our village – the whales are diverted further out and the effort to feed our village for the whole year is tremendously impacted. We’ve seen some of the devastation that has happened with other activities – of sonar and military exercises also impacting animals. Fully protecting this area for the generations to come, for us, it’s our way of life.

NA: In a statement, Obama said one of his goals was to create a strong Arctic economy, but the Alaska delegation resoundingly decried the move, arguing that it could cause job loss. Your thoughts?

RA: The job and climate process of our state has been focused on oil and gas for decades and the diversity that should have occurred generations ago is slowly evolving. But the cost of trying to sustain our small villages with limited economies, and this expensive cost of oil and gas when you have renewable energy systems that would be less costly – then you want to get out and have opportunities for jobs in the oil and gas economy. But, it needs to be done in ways that are not going to risk the importance of feeding the families for the generation to come.

NA: So, what do you think is next?

RA: There’s going to be much effort from the oil and gas industry to continue to paint the picture that this is the way that we must go. But, the reality is wanting to be the millionaires like the Texans in the lower 48, and digging in the Arctic are two very different things. We need to value our lands and waters for the importance of sustaining our people for the generations, not for the profitability of the dollars per gallon. The risk for our future generations is always upon our shoulders and we have seen the devastation that happened in the Gulf and we know what’s at risk.


Rosemary Ahtuangaruak is the former mayor of Barrows, Alaska and Environmental Justice Advisor for the Alaska Wilderness League. She joined FSRN by phone.

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