It would be tempting to say that the Obama administration left Alaska a lump of coal this week — but finding a lump of coal would require resource extraction that the outgoing administration clearly isn’t interested in pursuing.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama used his executive powers to withdraw most U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean from future lease sales, as well as certain areas off the Atlantic coast. Whether the next president is able to reverse the decision remains to be seen; proponents of exploration point to a 2008 decision from President George W. Bush to make previously withdrawn areas available for leasing while environmental advocacy groups promise a court fight. Alaska’s congressional delegation vowed to work with the next administration on reversing the decision.
Canada is taking similar action in the Arctic, though it’s worth noting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has placed a moratorium on new oil and gas leases subject to period review — not a permanent ban.
In the short term, the decision doesn’t change much in Alaska. The Arctic Ocean is a difficult environment in which to drill — to say the least — and between disappointing results, regulatory uncertainty and the low price of oil, Shell walked away from all but one of its leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas earlier this year. So even as the state looks desperately for the next big find to fill the pipeline, it wasn’t likely to come from the Arctic Ocean any time soon.
The long term effects — should the decision not be quickly reversed — have the potential for a much greater impact in Alaska. As we noted, resource extraction in the Arctic isn’t easy to start with, and throwing up more roadblocks to development or making more land off limits doesn’t give the industry much incentive to make a long-term investment here.
Certainly, we think the U.S. should continue to pursue alternative energy sources, and we agree that the Arctic needs environmental protection.
Where we disagree is with the notion that oil and gas exploration and development can’t be done in an environmentally responsible manner, or that the entire Arctic needs to be treated as a nature preserve.
The United States will continue to rely on oil and gas to meet its energy needs for decades to come, and we would much rather see those resource needs met from within our own country, where we can ensure responsible development with reasonable oversight, instead of politically unstable regions like the Middle East, or political adversaries, like Russia.
President-elect Donald Trump has made clear his goal U.S. energy self-sufficiency, and his Cabinet nominees would appear poised to reverse a number of Obama administration policies. We hope that a responsible approach to exploration and development is part of the plan.