Obama administration pauses new Arctic drilling

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The Obama administration wants to remove the Arctic Ocean from the offshore oil and gas leasing program for 2017–22, offering protection to crucial wildlife habitat.

“Hitting the pause button on offshore drilling in the Arctic is exactly the right thing to do,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “Offshore drilling is a dirty and dangerous business and removing the Arctic Ocean from the offshore leasing plan gives everyone time to think hard about how well water and oil mix.”

“The Arctic Ocean contains vital ecological areas that are critical for the survival of many birds and wildlife species,” said Nils Warnock, executive director for Audubon Alaska. “This prudent five-year program prevents new leasing in this crucial habitat at a time of unprecedented ecological change in the Arctic.”

But will the “pause” last for five years under a Trump administration and Republican-controlled House and Senate?

Will the pause even last five months?

Already, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has pledged to overturn the plan.

“In its final days, the Obama administration is throwing up barriers to American energy development,” Ryan said in a statement to the press. “This plan to exclude the resource-rich Arctic from exploration possibilities squanders our ability to harness the abundant, affordable energy sources that power our economy.”

Ryan said his agenda “outlines a plan to unleash our energy potential and create American jobs” and he wants to “open up the Arctic and other offshore areas for development.”

Also, President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office Jan. 20, 2017, has vowed to open resources to petroleum development and likely will take steps to reverse the decision.

Obama’s last chance

The Obama administration — through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — announced the draft plan 10 days after the election. The proposal outlines where fossil fuel companies may drill for oil and gas in America’s outer continental shelf. It builds on a prior move to exclude the Atlantic coast from leasing. The plan is now before Congress for a 60-day review period.

The Arctic is home to important, and potentially threatened, species.

There are 10 globally-significant wildlife areas that support millions of birds in the Arctic Ocean and along its shoreline in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas lease areas. The Chukchi and Beaufort seas also are home to polar bears, walrus, four species of ice seals and several species of whales, according to Audubon.

Hotspot in the Arctic

Offshore from Barrow, the farthest north community in the United States, is Barrow Canyon — a hot spot of biodiversity. There, the seafloor drops, creating an underwater canyon. When the Arctic Current encounters this barrier, it rises to create a fertile upwelling of foods consumed by many types of marine animals, such as bowhead and beluga whales.

In the shallow waters of Harrison Bay, millions of birds congregate to take advantage of the rich aquatic foodweb. The Colville River is Alaska’s largest Arctic river and the nutrient supply from the Colville combines with shallow water of Harrison Bay, resulting in higher productivity than other areas nearshore in the Beaufort Sea. The sheltered waters support a remarkable diversity of bird species of concern.