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Obama blocks new offshore drilling in Arctic for next five years

US President Obama has declared parts of the Arctic off-limits to new oil and gas drilling until 2022. Environmental groups have praised the move while Republican lawmakers have said they will try to overturn the plan.

President Barack Obama and his administration announced a new five-year offshore drilling plan on Friday which blocks the planned sale of new oil and gas drilling rights in the seas north of Alaska.

The decision blocks lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea until after the year 2022. The plan still allows for 11 potential drilling lease sales to go forward in Alaska's Cook Inlet area and in the Gulf of Mexico.

"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," US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Last year, Royal Dutch Shell PLC announced it would cease exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, citing disappointing results from a well in Chukchi and unpredictable federal regulations - after spending around $7 billion (6.6 billion euros).

Several environmental groups praised the Obama administration's decision, saying it comes at a key moment as the US President-elect Donald Trump has promised to boost the coal industry and expand oil and gas drilling. He has also said he intends to pull the US out of the landmark Paris Agreement on global warming.

"The decadeslong push to drill in the Arctic has put this unique and diverse ecosystem at risk, cost tens of billions of dollars and created significant controversy without providing the promised benefits," said the senior vice president of environmental group Oceana.

The Sierra Club said the announcement to protect the diverse Arctic environment "couldn't come at a better time."

President-elect Donald Trump could rewrite the drilling plan, but the process could take either months or years.

Backlash from lawmakers

Republican lawmakers and industry representatives decried Friday's decision as political, promising to overturn it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, said in a statement that the White House's plan "squanders our ability to harness the abundant, affordable energy sources that power our economy."

"We will work to overturn this plan, and to open up the Arctic and other offshore areas for development," Ryan vowed. 

Despite Shell noting disappointing results in its Arctic explorations, industry groups harshly criticized Obama's plan.

"The arrogance of the decision is unfathomable, but unfortunately not surprising," said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an industry group. He added that a majority of Alaskans are in favor of offshore drilling.

In March, the US government announced a similar plan when it also blocked drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, removing it from the 2017 to 2022 road map. Around 400 scientists signed a letter this summer urging Obama to eliminate the possibility of offshore drilling in the Arctic.

rs/kl  (AP, AFP)

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