Blog Post

Understanding President Obama’s Arctic Development Plans

Feb 12, 2015 | Alan J. Krupnick, Katrina McLaughlin

The landscape in the Arctic is changing, and in more ways than just ice cover. Over the last month, the Obama administration has made a number of significant announcements on Arctic policy. Leaving aside the one that has elicited the strongest response—the wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a presidential memo directed the Department of the Interior to permanently remove 9.8 million offshore acres of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from oil and gas development. Contrary to charges that this was a dramatic departure from previous policy, this announcement comes out of a complex, scientific, and still developing process to develop a new, adaptive management approach that features an Arctic-specific targeted leasing model. At the same time, this announcement appears to us to violate procedural expectations and internal consistency by jumping ahead of the plan from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to likely defer development of this acreage in the 2017-2022  period—a plan released on the same day.

Leaving aside procedural points for a moment, the substance of the memorandum is not as unprecedented as it may seem. With the exception of Hanna Shoal, all of those 9.8 million acres are deferral areas in the current five year program and thus were already excluded from leasing, and Hanna Shoal was added as a candidate for exclusion in BOEM's 2017-2022 plan. The use of deferral areas is part of a targeted leasing model that BOEM has developed specifically for the Arctic outer continental shelf, which identifies and defers leasing in some areas of high ecological value and subsistence use.  The development of a regionally-tailored leasing model is explicitly called for in high-level interagency planning processes for the Arctic, and responds to the need for what is termed integrated Arctic management in a system already stressed by climate change.

What the president has accomplished by acting through a presidential memorandum is to move up the date for making a decision on these areas (thus reducing planning uncertainty), placing them in permanent, rather than temporary, protection status and bypassing the many opportunities for stakeholder input that the BOEM staged leasing process entails.  This last point violates stated goals of stakeholder engagement across governance scales (i.e., between federal, state, and regional bodies, and including coastal communities) that have been put forth by numerous federal interagency working groups.  When evaluating the decision to exclude these offshore areas via presidential memo, therefore, the content is to a reasonable degree internally consistent with past administration goals, while the process is not. Thus, there is a need for increased coordination at the federal level (as put forth in the recent Executive Order), in addition to the need to refocus on coordination and engagement with state and local partners.