Obama Order Blocks Bering Sea Area from Drilling

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee slammed as “disastrous” a new executive order from President Obama blocking 40,300 square miles from oil and natural gas leasing with the creation of the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.

The White House simultaneously announced about $30 million over three years in “philanthropic commitments” for projects in rural northern Alaska and Canada, in areas related to “shipping, ecosystem science, community and ecological resilience, and tribal engagement.”

It comes on the heels of the Commerce Department sending an Economic Development Assessment Team to Nome, Alaska, “to help the region diversify, grow its economy, and address challenges related to climate change and community resilience.”

In a fact sheet, the administration said the total protected area encompasses 112,300 square miles and “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.”

“It is home to more than 40 tribes of coastal Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples whose way of life has been linked with the marine environment for thousands of years. The Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area is delineated for the purpose of focusing a locally-tailored collection of protections related to oil and gas, shipping, and fishing.”

Obama’s order also “establishes a Task Force charged with coordinating Federal activities in this area to enhance ecosystem and community resilience, conserve natural resources, and protect the cultural and subsistence values this ecosystem provides for Alaskan native communities.”

The White House is pulling areas from oil and gas leasing using the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. “The five year leasing plans issued by the Department of the Interior do not include plans for leasing in the withdrawn areas, so there will not need to be changes to those plans to reflect the withdrawal,” the administration said.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said the administration “has obeyed every directive from environmentalists to starve the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and block responsible development.”

“Today’s action will make the Bering Strait a choke point for any vessel seeking to reach Alaska Natives on the North Slope who want to see economic development on their lands,” Bishop said. “Alaskans want a brighter future with growing jobs, rising incomes and a healthy economy. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fit with President Obama’s dubious legacy.”

But White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters today that the executive order was issued “in response to requests we’ve gotten from indigenous people up there, that the coastal tribes along the Northern Bering Sea and the Bering Straight, requested that the federal government take this action to protect the health of marine ecosystems of the Northern Bering Sea while maintaining opportunities for sustainable fishing and sustainable economic development.”

“Here under this president’s direction, we make decisions on the merits,” Schultz added. “And, as the president has indicated, we’re gonna continue to do our job until Jan. 20.”