Environmental Policy News

Executive Order Blocks Oil Drilling in Alaska’s Norton Basin

Under an Executive Order issued on 9 December 2016, President Obama aims to enhance the resilience of the northern Bering Sea region by conserving the region's ecosystem.

The order delineates an area called the "Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area," in which all agencies charged with regulating, overseeing, or conducting activities in the area shall do so “with attention to the rights, needs, and knowledge of Alaska Native tribes; the delicate and unique ecosystem; the protection of marine mammals, fish, seabirds, and other wildlife; and with appropriate coordination with the State of Alaska.

“This area, encompassing 112,300 square miles, represents a hugely productive, high-latitude ocean ecosystem and supports one of the largest seasonal marine mammal migrations in the world, including thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses and ice seals, and millions of migratory birds,” the White House said in its announcement.

Bering EO Map 791x1024Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. Map credit: The White House.

One day earlier, on 8 December, Alaska's congressional delegation Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young sent Obama a letter saying that they oppose the withdrawal of acreage from any outer continental shelf (OCS) basins in Alaska, and “believe such a decisions would be particularly unwarranted and unnecessary within the Arctic OCS.”

Obama’s executive order also bans any future oil and gas leasing within the the Norton Basin planning area and parts of the St. Matthew-Hall planning area. The areas constitute 40,300 square miles in the waters offshore of Nome, Alaska and surrounding St. Lawrence Island. According to the order, “This withdrawal prevents consideration of these areas for future oil or gas leasing for purposes of exploration, development, or production.”

This executive order comes on the heels of the Department of Interior’s Federal OCS lease schedule announced a month ago which excluded Alaska’s Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea from 2017-2022 federal lease sales.

In the letter, Alaska’s representatives claim that stewardship and development are not incompatible and say that the order would have “steep economic consequences for Alaska and the rest of our Nation.”

Aside from blocking drilling in protected areas, the order also sets up a “Task Force on the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area” under the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) to be co-chaired by an office of the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard. It also instructs that senior representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the National Science Foundation; and such agencies and offices as the co-chairs may designate, participate on the task force. It also creates a “Bering Intergovernmental Tribal Advisory Council” for the purpose of providing input to the Bering Task Force and facilitating effective consultation with Alaska Native tribal governments.

The order also creates working groups to address and reduce the impacts of pollution from vessels, and increased shipping within the Bering Sea and Bering Strait. It tasks the U.S. Coast Guard, in coordination with relevant agencies and the State of Alaska, with updating plans and strategies relevant to oil spill preparedness in the area, and tasks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in coordination with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, with continuity of existing habitat protection measures, including prohibitions on the use of commercial non-pelagic trawl gear.

The order says, “The Bering Sea and Bering Strait are home to numerous subsistence communities, rich indigenous cultures, and unique marine ecosystems, each of which plays an important role in maintaining regional resilience. The changing climate and rising average temperatures are reducing the occurrence of sea ice; changing the conditions for fishing, hunting, and subsistence whaling; and opening new navigable routes to increased ship traffic. The preservation of a healthy and resilient Bering ecosystem, including its migratory pathways, habitat, and breeding grounds, is essential for the survival of marine mammals, fish, seabirds, other wildlife, and the subsistence communities that depend on them. These communities possess a unique understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, and their traditional knowledge should serve as an important resource to inform Federal decision making.”

The Executive Order is located here.

The letter from Alaska’s representatives opposing the order is located here.

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