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Obama, Trudeau, Invoke Indigenous Rights in Curtailing Arctic Drilling

President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will protect Arctic and Atlantic habitat and consult with Indigenous Peoples in oil and gas drilling.
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Environmental advocates are hailing President Barack Obama’s ruling that quashes offshore drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and advocates deeper consultation with Native peoples on all development.

He and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on December 20 jointly announced a new Arctic Policy Framework that includes extensive consultation with Indigenous Peoples. Building on their meeting last March, the two leaders said the new protocol will take a “science-based approach” to oil and gas exploration, support “strong Arctic communities,” create “low-impact shipping corridors” and rely on “science-based management of Arctic fisheries.”

References to working with Indigenous Peoples were woven throughout the statement, especially when it came to updating what had happened between their March 2016 meeting, and the present.

For instance, in March the two countries committed to undertaking commercial activities “only if the highest safety and environmental standards are met, and if they are consistent with national and global climate and environmental goals,” the two leaders said. “Todaydue to the important, irreplaceable values of its Arctic waters for indigenous, Alaska Native and local communities’ subsistence and cultures, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and scientific research; the vulnerability of these ecosystems to an oil spill; and the unique logistical, operational, safety, and scientific challenges and risks of oil extraction and spill response in Arctic waters—the United States is designating the vast majority of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off limits to offshore oil and gas leasing, and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.”


Canada promised to consult with “Northerners, Territorial and Provincial governments, and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis People” on policies that will replace Canada’s Northern Strategy, Trudeau’s office said in its portion of the statement. “The Framework will include an Inuit-specific component, created in partnership with Inuit, as Inuit Nunangat comprises over a third of Canada’s land mass and over half of Canada’s coast line, and as Inuit modern treaties govern this jurisdictional space. In parallel, Canada is reducing the reliance of northern communities on diesel, by deploying energy efficiency and renewable power. Canada will also, with indigenous and northern partners, explore how to support and protect the future of the Arctic Ocean’s ‘last ice area’ where summer ice remains each year.”

Consultations with Indigenous Peoples likewise informed the other elements of the curtailing of commercial activity in the Arctic and elsewhere. At the March meeting, “both countries committed to defining new approaches and exchanging best practices to strengthen the resilience of Arctic communities and continuing to support the well-being of Arctic residents, in particular respecting the rights and territory of Indigenous peoples,” Obama and Trudeau said.

But Obama has since taken concrete steps “in direct response to requests from Alaska Native communities,” creating the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area to protect the “cultural and subsistence resources of more than 80 tribes as well as one of the largest seasonal migrations of marine mammals in the world of bowhead and beluga whales, walrus, ice seals, and sea birds,” the release said. “The United States also launched an interagency Economic Development Assessment Team in the Nome region of Alaska to identify future investment opportunities, with other regions to follow.”

There is also an Arctic Funders Collaborative (AFC), a group of 11 U.S., Canadian and international philanthropic foundations, which unlocked $27 million in resources for programs across the Arctic over the next three years, the statement said.

The move earned instant praise from climate experts in Washington, who also noted that this curtails, but does not eliminate, offshore drilling.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for the environment, our climate, and one of the last great pristine wildernesses on Earth, and a defeat for Big Oil and their ‘drill everywhere’ agenda,” said U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva in a statement. “The oil and gas industry will whine, but the fact is they still have access to over 70 percent of the fossil fuel resources underneath our oceans, and hold over 13 million acres of leases that they aren’t even producing from yet. We saw firsthand with Shell in 2012 that drilling in the Arctic simply cannot be done safely. This is yet another step in solidifying President Obama’s legacy as one of the greatest environmental presidents of all time, and I will never stop fighting against efforts to undo the progress made under his watch.”

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The U.S. Department of the Interior lauded the preservation of 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, the agency said in a statement. That brings the total number of acres protected by Obama to nearly 125 million in the offshore Arctic alone. The Atlantic portion of the declaration protects 31, canyons, the largest one being the Hudson Canyon at 10,000 feet deep, which is comparable to the Grand Canyon, the DOI said, noting the canyons’ biodiversity.

In addition, other uses are still allowed in the region, which lies on the Outer Continental Shelf, which will help sustain commercial and recreational fisheries in the Atlantic, enabling the support of fishing communities and of Native cultural practices.

“The President’s bold action recognizes the vulnerable marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, their critical and irreplaceable ecological value, as well as the unique role that commercial fishing and subsistence use plays in the regions’ economies and cultures,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement. “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.”


Interior noted that existing leases in those offshore waters are not affected, and an area of the Beaufort Sea that contains about 2.8 million acres with high oil and gas potential and is closer to shore, located near already-built infrastructure, are not ruled out.

The White House noted in a statement that just 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore crude production was generated in the Arctic in 2015 and that current oil prices render extraction there unfeasible economically. It underscores the importance of developing economic alternatives beyond the oil and gas sector, the White House said.

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth,” the White House said. “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. By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region—at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”

In Canada, the Inuit’s political arm Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) pledged to work with and advise the Trudeau government on issues related to climate change.

“Canada and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami recognize that Inuit and Inuit Nunangat communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change,” the group said in a statement on December 13, after ITK and Trudeau signed a commitment. “We recognize that Inuit Nunangat comprises 35 percent of Canada’s land mass and over 50 percent of its coastline, and therefore is of significant importance in our national response. A threefold increase in average temperatures in relation to the global average, melting permafrost, extreme weather, rapidly decreasing and changing sea ice patterns, and climate related risks to Arctic wildlife sustainability are threatening the Inuit way of life and their inherent rights.”

The partnership will include climate change mitigation and addressing the out-of-control food prices that plague the region.

“By working collaboratively, we will take action to address the risk of runaway warming in the Canadian Arctic,” ITK said. “We will build resilience to a changing world through the creation of innovations and economic opportunities for Inuit. The federal government will also engage Inuit to address their unique circumstances, including high costs of living, challenges with food security and emerging economies.”