US President Barack Obama withdrew on Tuesday afternoon hundreds of millions of acres of federally owned land in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from new offshore oil and gas drilling.
Using the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, companies are banned from drilling in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea, as well as in all but 2.8 acres of the region's Beaufort Sea. A string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia is also subject to the ban.
The ban affects 98% of federally-owned Arctic waters (115 acres) and 3.8 million acres in the East Coast. It does not affect lease already held by gas and oil companies, or drilling activity in state-owned waters.
Obama already invoked the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to safeguard Alaska’s Bristol Bay in 2014, and again in 2015, to protect part of Alaska’s Arctic coast. In total, the areas protected in the past two years total 125 million acres.
Simultaneous to Obama's decision, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took similar steps to protect Canada's Arctic region from drilling. However, Canada's ban will need to be renewed after five years, and leaves open the areas around Newfoundland.
Canada's announcement follows an agreement between Trudeau and Obama to work together on issues concerning the Arctic, as the region suffers from climate change and threats to its ecosystem.
In a White House statement, Obama said, "These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. They reflect 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."
"Today’s bold bi-lateral announcement between Canada and the United States shows North America is leading the world in preserving the Arctic for future generations," Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh said. "President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau have created an indelible legacy as true stewards of the most fragile and threatened ecosystem in the world, and we urge the other Arctic leaders to follow suit."
"President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity," said the White House in a joint statement with Trudeau.
The two nations plan to collaborate on efforts to define “low-impact shipping corridors” protecting the Arctic region's endangered species and preserving the lifestyle of its native people.
However, Alaska's congressional delegation criticized Obama's decision, saying it restricts the state's economic development, since the vast majority of the state's budget comes from oil production.
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Senator Lisa Murkowski said, "President Obama has once again treated the Arctic like a snow globe, ignoring the desires of the people who live, work, and raise a family there. I cannot wait to work with the next administration to reverse this decision."