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Obama bans future oil leases in much of Arctic, Atlantic

By KTVA / AP 12:03 PM December 20, 2016

Last updated at 6:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 20

As Alaska faces economic challenges, President Barack Obama has designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing. The Alaska Congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Walker say the decision could be harmful to the state.

The move on Tuesday helps put some finishing touches on Obama’s environmental legacy while also testing President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to unleash the nation’s untapped energy reserves.

Environmental groups hope the ban, despite relying on executive powers, will be difficult for future presidents to reverse.

The White House says Obama has used a provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently.

The Atlantic waters placed off limits are 31 canyons stretching off the coast of New England south to Virginia.

Canada is also placing a moratorium on new leasing in its Arctic waters.

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U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell applauded Obama’s move. In a release from her office, she said:

“The President’s Arctic withdrawal, which encompasses the entire U.S. Chukchi Sea and significant portions of the U.S. Beaufort Sea, will provide critical protection for these vibrant and fragile offshore ecosystems, which are home to marine mammals and other important ecological resources and marine species on which many Alaska Native communities rely for subsistence and cultural traditions.”

Earlier in the day, the Alaska Congressional delegation urged Obama to talk with them before he “make any additional decisions that will harm our state’s future.”

In a letter to the president, the delegation expressed frustrations with the Obama Administration.

“During your time in office, Alaska’s ability to produce energy, minerals, and other resources for the good of the nation has come under direct and sustained assault,” the delegation wrote.

Walker also responded to Obama’s decision. He said, “This unprecedented move marginalizes the voices of those who call the Arctic home and have asked for responsible resource development to lower the cost of energy to heat houses and businesses. For centuries, the Arctic has provided food for those in the region. No one is more invested than Alaskans to ensure that the habitats within the Arctic are protected. To lock it up against any further exploration or development activity is akin to saying that the voices of activists who live in Lower 48 cities have a greater stake than those to whom the Arctic is our front yard and our back yard.”

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) also issued a statement condemning the move.

“We will fight this legacy move by the outgoing president with every resource at our disposal,” said Rex A. Rock Sr., ASRC president and CEO in the statement. “This decision will not stop our climate from changing, but it will inhibit our North Slope communities from developing the infrastructure, communications capability and technology necessary for growth. It’s a move which was made without any consultation from the largest private land owners in the U.S. Arctic and yet we will be the ones forced to live with the consequences.”

In its statement, ASRC claimed the president “blatantly” ignored feedback from Arctic residents in a similar announcement last month, cancelling offshore lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas through 2022.

In a release from the White House, Obama defended his decision.

“In 2015, just 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic and Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the Arctic will not occur,” the release said. “That’s why looking forward, we must continue to focus on economic empowerment for Arctic communities beyond this one sector.”

This is a developing story; check back for updates.

KTVA 11’s Megan Edge and Liz Raines contributed to this report. 

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