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Obama’s oil embargo: Revisiting the economy vs environment debate

Barrack Obama

By Archit Jain

In arguably his last effort to reorient US environmental policy and guard critical biodiversity hotspots – Barack Obama withdrew more than 4 million acres of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from the area available for new offshore drilling of oil and natural gas – possibly, as a means to counter the potential ramifications of President-elect Donald Trump’s agnosticim towards climate change.

On 20th December, he invoked an arcane 1953 law which permits Presidents to block the sale of new drilling and mining rights; thereby, making it tough for their successors to undo the decision.

Simultaneous actions and those who agree

The embargo affects federally-owned waters off Alaska in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and in the Atlantic from New England to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was also accompanied by a similar announcement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

An official White House statement read:
“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. 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.”

The move garnered applause from environment groups and campaigners. They pointed out that it not only shields coastal tourism and fishing industries from offshore drilling but also protects imperilled species such as the Bowhead whale, Fin whale, Pacific walrus and Polar bear.

Trump and Obama are at different poles regarding the oil situation

It would be interesting to see how Trump reacts to this oil embargo given his stand on unleashing the untapped energy reserves of America. | Photo Courtesy: Vanity Fair

Backlash from the opposition

However, the American Petroleum Institute denounced the decision. It asserted that the national security of the US depends on its ability to produce oil and natural gas domestically.

Furthermore, Trump’s vows of unleashing the country’s untapped energy reserves for fuelling growth are raising concerns that he may challenge the resolution in court.

This last leg of Obama’s environmental legacy—and the subsequent backlash it received from petroleum associations and industry—is emblematic of the age-old, unsettled debate: The economy vs the environment. Obama’s decision is remarkable in the very best sense of the word.

Obama’s decision is remarkable in the very best sense of the word.

But dismissing its criticism as brazen capitalism is an oversimplification of the complex tradeoffs involved. And, it serves only to patronise genuine political and economic concerns of lobbyists who do get hurt in the process.

Of course, every conceivable action must be taken to safeguard an already vulnerable ecosystem, but not without assuaging the very real fears of those disadvantaged by such action—and not least by denouncing them as selfish profiteers. The victory of Trump is in itself a precedent for this. Demonising genuine economic worries of a large part of the population and reducing their concerns purely to xenophobia and racism caused Donald Trump in the first place.

A question to ponder upon

As a parting thought, consider this: How should we get people to drive less—an environmental imperative—while at the same time encouraging them to revive a weak economy by buying more cars? Add to this the question of political prudence—politicians, not economists, make policies—and there will be no easy answers.

Featured Image Courtesy: The New Yorker
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