In their final year, the Obama administration has moved forward with some important actions to curtail extraction and reduce pollution from the oil and gas industry. Fossil fuels are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gases and deadly air pollution.
To help address these concerns President Obama has previously a raft of fossil fuel related actions. This includes, the Clean Power Plan, stopping the KXL, cuting Shell’s Arctic drilling in half and halting the building of the Dakota Access pipeline. In 2016 President Obama went even further and banned offshore Arctic oil drilling, changed the methane rules for the fossil fuel industry and canceled gas leases on Native lands.
Obama’s initiatives are designed to protect the health of Americans, combat climate change, and decrease risks to ecosystems. In the context of a hostile and obstructionist Republican controlled Congress Obama has done what he could to advance climate action. Unsurprisingly, these actions have been vociferously opposed by the fossil fuel industry and their GOP minions in the House and the Senate.
The fossil fuel industry has used its considerable clout to challenge Obama’s efforts. A recent Senate report, explained, “state officials, trade associations, front groups, and industry-funded scientists participating in the challenge actually represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry.”
Moratorium on Arctic drilling
In 2015 Obama pledged leadership in Alaska and Just ahead of leaving office Obama found a creative way to deliver. Obama’s actions ensure that there will be no oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic until at least 2022. The move kills any hope of extracting fossil fuels from the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The move also stymies new drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (New England to the Chesapeake Bay). This means that the Gulf of Mexico is the only place in the US where new offshore extraction will be permitted for the foreseeable future. Obama’s action was part of a joint announcement that included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to prevent new drilling operations in the Canadian Arctic.
In a statement published by the Washington Post, President 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…By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region – at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”
While the amount of water being protected is unprecedented, it should not be surprising as it makes both environmental and economic sense. The decision bodes well for animals that make up the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, this includes the bowhead whale, fin whale, Pacific walrus and polar bear. It will also protect what the White House has called biodiversity “hotspots” critical to fisheries.
Obama used Section 12-A of a 1953 law called “Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act” to prevent the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights. The real genius of invoking this law is that it will take years for the next president to reverse the decision.
These moves bode well for the future of tourism, fishing and other less harmful forms of economic development in the Arctic. According to the White House, the president has protected 125 million acres in the region in the last two years.
Conservation groups hailed the decision. League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski called it “an incredible holiday gift,” saying that “an oil spill in these pristine waters would be devastating to the wildlife and people who live in the region.”
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “a historic victory in our fight to save our Arctic and Atlantic waters, marine life, coastal communities and all they support.” Carter Roberts, president and chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund, applauded what he called “a bold decision” that “signals some places are just too important not to protect.”
New methane rules
Also in November the Obama administration released the final version of a new oil and gas rule for public and Native lands. Federal lands generate 11 percent of US natural gas production and 5 percent of domestic oil production. The new regulations are intended to capture flared natural gas and so-called “fugitive” emissions of methane from drilling operations. Large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas are emitted during drilling and fracking operations.
The Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management, which will implement the rule, says the move will reduce methane emissions by 175,000 to 180,000 tons annually. This translates to enough gas to serve the needs of 6.2 million American homes each year.
“We are proving that we can cut harmful methane emissions that contribute to climate change while putting in place standards that make good economic sense for the nation,” said Interior department secretary Sally Jewell in a statement. “Not only will we save more natural gas to power our nation, but we will modernize decades-old standards to keep pace with industry and to ensure a fair return to the American taxpayers for use of a valuable resource that belongs to all of us.”
The new rules are part of the president’s goal of reducing US methane emissions from the oil and gas sector 40 to 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025.
“Natural gas is a valuable American resource, but when wasted into the air it causes dangerous pollution,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Reducing the amount of gas that oil and gas operators release will conserve an important domestic resource, improve air quality, lower asthma attacks, and slow climate change.”
Leases canceled on Native lands
In November, Obama administration cancels oil and gas leases on Blackfeet tribe’s sacred grounds
“This is the right action to take on behalf of current and future generations,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on the department’s Web site. She said it would protect the region’s “rich cultural and natural resources and recognizes the irreparable impacts that oil and gas development would have on them.”
Another Washington Post article quotes Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Business Council as follows:
“A lot of our creation stories emanate from this area. It’s a significant area, it always has been for thousands of years…While we’re not opposed to oil and gas exploration, we are opposed to oil and gas exploration in that area.” Barnes called the settlement, a “victory for not only the Blackfeet people, but for all of America. It’s such a beautiful area. It’s Mother Earth, and it needs to be enjoyed by everybody.”
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