President Obama’s ban on oil and gas drilling on the Atlantic coast is part of a wider shift away from fossil fuels, signalling strong action on climate action, according to campaigners

Plans to allow oil and gas drilling along the US Atlantic coast have been abandoned in a policy reversal hailed as a major victory for the environment.

Community opposition, competing military operations, market concern and president Obama’s desire to leave a positive legacy were all influencers for the March decision. Environmentalists welcomed the change in policy, which relates to the next round of offshore energy leases running from 2017 to 2022. Jacqueline Savitz, US vice president for international ocean conservation group Oceana, said: “President Obama has taken a giant step for our oceans, for coastal economies and for mitigating climate change. This is a courageous decision that begins the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels.”

This is a courageous decision that begins the shift to a new energy paradigm, where clean energy replaces fossil fuels

The reversal follows president Obama’s decision in November to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to Nebraska that had become a symbol of the fight against climate change. Just a month later, nearly 200 countries agreed a deal at the Paris climate change summit, aiming to limit the rise in global temperature to “well below” 2C. While the deal marked a significant step forward for international negotiations, only elements of it are legally binding, and some scientists warn it needs to be strengthened. In March, the International Energy Agency published preliminary data giving further grounds for optimism; it showed that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stayed flat in 2015 as the global economy grew by more than three per cent, the second year in a row of such ‘decoupling’.

Rodrigo Estrada of Greenpeace USA cautioned that, despite the breaking of the link between growth and CO2, damaging emissions from US oil and gas drilling had been rising. But he called the Atlantic drilling ban “a victory for coastal communities and our climate” and said it was an example of how grassroots campaigners can influence policy.

In January 2015, the US government had proposed to auction offshore oil and gas drilling rights covering up to 104 million acres of Atlantic waters running from Virginia to Georgia. It has left open the possibility of drilling at three locations in the Alaskan Arctic and in the Gulf of Mexico. Campaigners continue to press for a total Arctic ban.

Photo: Gentoo penguins at Stromness Harbour (South Georgia) in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Markus Mauthe/Greenpeace