U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday banned future oil and gas drilling in most of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, the latest move to cement his environmental legacy before he leaves office next month.
Using his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that allow presidents to withdraw areas from oil and gas leasing and exploration, Obama has protected the entire U.S. Chukchi Sea and the vast majority of the U.S. Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean and 31 canyons in the Atlantic Ocean from drilling, the White House said.
Canada will also freeze offshore oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based assessment, according to the White House.
"These actions, and Canada's parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth," Obama said in a statement.
"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," he said.
Obama believed "it would take decades" to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region.
The withdrawal areas announced on Tuesday encompass 3.8 million acres in the north and mid-Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast and 115 million acres in the U.S. Arctic Ocean, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"The withdrawal will help build the resilience of these vital ecosystems, provide refuges for at-risk species, sustain commercial fisheries and subsistence traditions, and create natural laboratories for scientists to monitor and explore the impacts of climate change," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Including previous presidential withdrawals, Tuesday's action protects nearly 125 million acres in the offshore Arctic from future oil and gas activity.
Analysts said the incoming administration of Republican President-elect Donald Trump could not simply reverse the action, as the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act doesn't include a procedure for a new president to undo actions by a predecessor.
But Congress could pass legislation lifting the ban, which likely would require 60 votes in the Senate, a high hurdle for many controversial issues.