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Activists blocking a Shell Oil Arctic drilling rig in Port Angeles, Washington in 2015. (Photo Credit: Charles Conatzer & the sHellNo! Action Council/cc/flickr)

Scientists Call on Obama to Enact Trump-Proof Arctic Drilling Ban

Outgoing president must do everything in his power to protect against threat of 'drill, baby, drill' under Trump

Lauren McCauley

With the proverbial bell tolling for the end of the Arctic ice sheet, as well as for the Obama presidency, dozens of leading scientists are calling on the president to pass a permanent ban on fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic—one that cannot be easily undone by his climate-denying successor, Donald Trump.

On Monday, 34 prominent scientists, including former members of the Obama administration, sent a letter to the outgoing president explaining why such a ban is crucial for the preservation of the pristine Arctic ecosystem, as well as for the future of the planet.

"You have identified disruption of the earth's climate as a significant concern of your administration because it poses a grave threat to the future of our planet," the letter states.

But, the letter continues, the president's efforts on climate will be betrayed so long as the Arctic remains under future threat of fossil fuel development:

We can lay no claim to sustainability if we continue to develop the Arctic's offshore fossil fuels. First, the hypersensitivity of Arctic ecosystems, combined with our obvious inability to respond to significant spills under Arctic conditions, means that we are taking risks that we cannot manage; we are essentially crossing our fingers that we will cause no severe, adverse events such as the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

[...] Second, thoughtful research and careful management are necessary for dealing with climate disruption but, in the foreseeable future, no amount of Arctic research can counter the full adverse effects of more oil and gas development on the global climate. Moving away from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid such disruption.

"Such exploitation," the letter continues, "places our needs above those of future generations, and undercuts efforts to address climate disruption in a responsible manner. The basic tenets of good citizenship call for  thoughtful, responsible, enlightened action—including restraint—to address climate disruption...Your strong leadership these past eight years indicates that you know these things to be right and true."

The scientists conclude with the plea to "take yet another difficult, courageous step."

"With Trump threatening to return to the days of 'drill, baby, drill,' President Obama should be doing everything in his power to secure our public lands and waters, climate, and communities from the significant and irreversible dangers of fossil fuel development."
—Marissa Knodel, Friends of the Earth

The letter comes days after President Barack Obama announced that the Arctic is no longer part of the Interior Department's five-year-plan for offshore drilling in federal waters.

But climate hawks want the outgoing president to go even further, particularly because the president-elect—who believes climate change is a "bunch of bunk," according to Trump's incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus—has made clear his disdain for federal environmental regulations.

"Under a Trump administration, the Interior Department could revise its five-year plan and open these areas to extraction within a few years," Grist reported last week.

However, a permanent ban on Arctic drilling would not be so easy to reverse.

Specifically, scientists, lawmakers, and environmental advocates are asking Obama to use the executive powers granted to him under section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (pdf) to permanently protect both the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.

The Act "gives the president unilateral authority to protect sections of the outer continental shelf from future energy development leasing," as explained in a recent letter sent to Obama by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who is among the 72 members of Congress also advocating for such a move. 

"Putting off-shore areas off-limits to drilling is not the same as naming a national monument, but it's similar in that it uses a presidential power outside the normal rule-making process," Grist further explained. "To repeal permanent protection, Congress would need to change the underlying law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or pass stand-alone legislation."

"With Trump threatening to return to the days of 'drill, baby, drill,' President Obama should be doing everything in his power to secure our public lands and waters, climate, and communities from the significant and irreversible dangers of fossil fuel development," Marissa Knodel, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told Grist. 

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