Major oil and gas firms abandoned most of their leases in the Arctic this week, even as President Barak Obama and other leaders are coming under increased pressure to avert dangerous warming in the region.
Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy have relinquished all but one lease in the Chukchi Sea, company officials confirmed Tuesday, as well as some in the Beaufort Sea. The move to give back roughly $2.5 billion worth of oil and gas leases spanning 2.2 million acres of the Arctic Ocean comes in the same week that the leaders of five Arctic nations are coming to Washington for a White House summit over how best to protect an area that is showing new signs of vulnerability to climate change.
''Today we are an important step closer to a sustainable future for the Arctic Ocean,'' said Michael Levine, Pacific senior counsel for the advocacy group Oceana. ''Hopefully, today marks the end of the ecologically and economically risky push to drill in the Arctic Ocean.''
In a statement on Tuesday, Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said, ''After extensive consideration and evaluation, Shell will relinquish all but one of its federal offshore leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.''
He further said, ''Separate evaluations are underway for our federal offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea,'' adding that the company plans to remove its remaining drilling equipment from the Arctic in the summer. ''This action is consistent with our earlier decision not to explore offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.''
Many Democratic lawmakers and environmental activists, however, are pushing for the administration to ban Arctic drilling altogether as part of the next five-year leasing plan, which runs from 2017 to 2022.
Representative Jared Huffman, joined by Robert Dold and 66 House Democrats, sent a letter last week to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling for the administration to revise the leasing plan before it becomes final.
''As this administration laid out in the US-Canada Joint Agreement, our nation should be focusing on achieving strong conservation goals for the Arctic and making decisions to develop oil and gas resources only when the highest safety and environmental standards are met, including national and global climate and environmental goals,'' they wrote.
''To meet these goals, the Arctic Ocean should be permanently protected from oil drilling, not used to drill for more fossil fuels that we will not need - and must not burn - if we are serious about powering our future with clean energy.''
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said on Tuesday that there was no longer a way to reconcile oil and gas extraction in the Arctic with the administration's climate goals. ''The president has made a commitment to address climate change and protecting the Arctic must be part of that equation,'' she said.
Some advocacy groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, are lobbying Obama to ban leasing in the Arctic altogether, under a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The president has invoked that authority twice, once to protect Alaska's Bristol Bay in 2014, and again in 2015 to safeguard part of Alaska's Arctic coast.
The new push comes as the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway will meet with Obama at the White House Friday, to discuss issues including global security, trade and climate change.
The precarious state of the Arctic will come under discussion, according to both US and foreign officials, and the group is still negotiating the final communique they will issue on the topic.
Rafe Pomerance, who heads a coalition of nongovernmental organisations researching Arctic climate science and policy known as Arctic 21, said that when it comes to the summit, ''the real elephant in the room is climate change''.
In March, the maximum winter sea ice extent hit an all-time recorded low, as it shrunk below the 2014-15 record low.
That same month, parts of the Arctic were more than 4 degrees Celsius, or more than 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than the historic average. April marked the lowest Northern Hemisphere snow cover on record.
And further south, in Alberta, raging wildfires have decimated a major oil-producing area for Canada, Fort McMurray. The fires have prompted the evacuation of more than 80,000 people from the north-western Canadian city and destroyed at least 1,600 buildings there.