US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday announced a freeze on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean in a move applauded by environmental groups.
The US will ban oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska, as well as in a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean from New England to Virginia. Canada agreed to make its Arctic waters free of drilling, subject to review every five years.
Obama said in a statement the ban reflects "the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region's harsh conditions is limited."
Environmental groups have long pushed for a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic's unique ecosystems are home to a vast array of wildlife and provide for indigenous communities.
"This is a historic victory in our fight to save our Arctic and Atlantic waters, marine life, coastal communities and all they support," Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Tuesday's announcement cements Obama's environmental legacy as Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House in a month. Obama used a US law that allows the president to block oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
US officials and environmental groups said the move would prevent Trump, who has said he wants to expand domestic energy production, from rolling back the ban. Any attempt to reverse the decision would likely run up against lengthy legal battles.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby group, disagreed that the ban would be permanent and hoped the Trump administration would reverse the decision.
Arctic drilling is difficult and expensive. Cleanup of an oil spill, especially in the unforgiving winter months, would be nearly impossible. In 2015, oil giant Shell scrapped plans to conduct exploratory drilling after encountering a number of technical problems, stiff resistance from environmental groups and legal battles, including from the city of Seattle where its oil drill and ships were based.
The US currently gets about 0.1 percent of its oil from Arctic waters and at current prices few companies have shown an interest in drilling in the harsh waters, preferring instead to tap vast amounts of shale oil.
Environmental groups argue that tapping Arctic oil and gas would exacerbate climate change at a time the United States should transition to renewable energy.
"Oil production in these oceans - if feasible at all - would take decades to commercialize, arriving after the transition to cleaner fuels must already have turned the corner if we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a blog post.
cw/cmk (AP, dpa, Reuters)