The Arctic Ocean sits on top of the world, comprised of the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. The Bering Sea is closely connected to these seas, although it is technically part of the Pacific Ocean. In these three seas, Arctic seabirds and marine mammals find the marine habitat they need. Ecological hotspots like Hanna Shoal, the Chukchi corridor, and Smith Bay form the backbone to the Arctic marine ecosystem: pacific walrus haul-out to rest at Hanna Shoal, bowhead whales migrate along the Chukchi corridor, and seabirds dabble for food in the shallow waters of Smith Bay. These areas of incredible ecological value deserve ongoing protection from the expansion of infrastructure in the Arctic and from oil spills that inevitably come with offshore drilling.
But the Trump Executive Order on expanding federal offshore energy, issued on April 28, 2017, puts the Arctic Ocean back on the table for offshore drilling using two basic methods:
- Calling for re-inserting the Arctic Ocean into the “Five Year Plan” on offshore drilling.
- Purporting to revoke “withdrawal” protections that President Obama instituted in certain acres of the Arctic Ocean.
The Five Year Plan for 2017-2022 does not presently schedule any new lease sales anywhere in the Arctic Ocean federal waters, effectively pausing all new federal offshore drilling in the Arctic until 2022. The Trump Order now re-opens the process, with the plainly visible intent to add the Arctic back into the Five Year Plan.
In 2015 and 2016, President Obama instituted “withdrawals” of more than 125 million acres in the Arctic Ocean, using Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to indefinitely halt offshore drilling in these acres. On January 27, 2015, Obama withdrew about 10 million acres covering Hanna Shoal and the Chukchi whale migration corridor. On December 9, 2016, Obama withdrew about 25 million acres as part of the Bering Sea Climate Resiliency Area. On December, 20, 2016, Obama withdrew 115 million acres in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Importantly, after all these withdrawals, about 2.8 million acres still remained unwithdrawn in the nearshore Beaufort. The Trump Order attempts to edit the Obama withdrawals out of existence. The Order also revokes the Bering Sea Climate Resiliency Area, an act that drew sharp criticism from the more than 70 federally recognized Alaska Native tribes that had supported the original designation.
Within this complex puzzle of laws, it is critical to realize that the Five Year Plan is the piece protecting our national Arctic waters from the most immediate threats of further offshore drilling. That, and the low price of oil making the remote and treacherous Arctic Ocean fiscally unattractive to oil companies. The Five Year Plan currently protects 2.8 million acres of the Arctic Ocean that were not withdrawn by President Obama. This unwithdrawn area of the nearshore Beaufort Sea is in close proximity to the existing oil infrastructure near Prudhoe Bay, and is therefore likely the most attractive area to industry. The Five Year Plan is the only piece of the puzzle actively standing in the way of new drilling in this fragile area. The withdrawals are certainly significant layers of protection for large portions of the Arctic Ocean; but while the withdrawals are likely to be tied up in litigation for years, the most pressing debate over offshore Arctic drilling will involve these 2.8 million acres in the nearshore Beaufort Sea.
Audubon Alaska participated in the lengthy comment period that led up to the current Five Year Plan. And, as the Trump Administration begins reviewing the Five Year Plan, we will be there once again, to contribute the best available science to any newly re-opened public process. Furthermore, we will keep a watchful eye over an Administration that has already revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of even the most basic elements of responsible Arctic management. With its remote location, treacherously icy conditions, lack of spill response capacity, the chance of an Arctic oil spill is simply too great to risk.
Get oriented: See a map of the implicated areas and their importance to wildlife.
Get more facts: Read an annotated version of the Executive Order.