Obama Order Preserves Alaska’s Coastal ‘Breadbasket’

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By Steve Quinn

Dec. 12 — Closing off more than 100,000 square miles from oil and gas development off the coast of Alaska will preserve what one local leader called “the breadbasket and garden” of coastal people dependent on the area for survival.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order Dec. 9 creating the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, which will protect waters off the shore of Western Alaska’s Nome in the Norton Sound. The area is “delineated for the purpose of focusing a locally tailored collection of protections related to oil and gas, shipping and fishing,” according to the White House’s announcement.

The villages in the area support economic development, but not at the expense of their “breadbasket and garden,” Melanie Bahnke, president of Alaska Native corporation Kawerak Inc., told Bloomberg BNA.

“Rarely are people who live up here thought of by others outside of Alaska, but this is our home. People have lived her for thousands of years,” she said. “Arctic conditions create hazards for oil and gas that don’t present themselves anywhere in the world. Protecting our way of life is number one.”

The Dec. 9 order comes three weeks after Obama removed the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from the Interior Department’s five-year plan for drilling leases, prompting outrage from Alaska’s congressional delegation.

“To me, this sure sounds like a euphemism for a marine monument, because it locks up over 112,000 square miles of Alaska waters and seems destined to impact a wide range of communities, tribes, and industries in our state,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who also chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “While I strongly support meaningful consultation with tribes, this opens the door to a whole host of unknowns, and could easily be misapplied to block even the most responsible Arctic subsistence, activities, and development.”

Tribal Consultation Ordered

As part of his order, Obama directed federal agencies to establish a program that considers traditional knowledge and input from the area’s tribal governments before taking any actions.

This may be one of the most important features, said Natalie Landreth, a Native American rights attorney who represented more than 75 tribal governments seeking these protections.

“This elevates the voices of the tribes and creates a formal role for the tribes in what happens in the future,” Landreth told Bloomberg BNA. “It lifts them up to be participants in how this area is managed.”

Obama used Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, underscoring how he—the only sitting president to visit the Arctic—has long pointed to Alaska while pursuing his climate change agenda.

Protections Difficult to Repeal

Though the designation was made by an executive order, repealing those protections under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act could be difficult, Kevin Book, managing director for ClearView Energy Partners LLC, said.

Book said in a short Dec. 9 note Trump administration “could—and probably will—rewrite” Obama’s five-year plan to restore Chukchi and Beaufort Sea sales. But it remains unclear what Trump can do to reverse the executive order because the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act “provides no statutory mechanism to reverse Section 12(a) withdrawals.”

Book said that Obama may deliberately be trying to overwhelm the next Congress and President-elect Donald Trump with executive orders.

“In many cases, Congressional or Trump Administration rescission of rules, orders and other restrictive actions will require significant time commitments and face judicial challenge from environmental activists,” Book wrote. “Accordingly, President Obama may hope to overwhelm Republicans’ countermeasures by filling the policy horizon with so many targets.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska, at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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