Projects suspended off Alaska, Virginia, with another 33 halted in the Gulf

LOS ANGELES � Environmental activists campaigning for a halt on Arctic oil exploration welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to halt planned drilling in two regions off the coast of Alaska.

A coalition of groups led by the Alaska Wilderness League had been lobbying for the suspension of Shell Oil's proposed exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, due to begin off the coast of Alaska in July.

Those projects were placed on hold Thursday as Obama unveiled tough moves to suspend new drilling and exploration following the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Included in the suspension were drilling projects near Virginia, along with 33 others in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Associated Press.

President Obama said at a press conference Thursday that the federal government is "fully engaged" in the midst of America's worst environmental catastrophe ever.

"The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort," he said, adding: "My job right now is just to make sure everybody in the Gulf understands, this is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about -- the spill."

"Together with people on the Arctic Slope, we extend our gratitude and thanks to President Obama and Secretary Salazar for their decision today to suspend Shell Oil's plans for drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer," said Cindy Shogan, Executive Director of Alaska Wilderness League.

"We look forward to working with them to make sure that any development in these pristine waters is only allowed to proceed when it can be done safely," she added in a statement.

Activists have said the remote nature of the proposed exploratory drilling site, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds would be formidable obstacles to any potential clean-up operation.

Environmental campaigners have said it would be almost impossible to mount the kind of clean-up witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico, describing the Arctic as one of the most remote and extreme environments on Earth.

"The Arctic environment absolutely could not stand an oil spill like the one we're now seeing in the Gulf of Mexico -- any spill, in fact, would have devastating effects on Arctic wildlife, and it's clear that we couldn't clean it up," said Richard Charter, Senior Policy Advisor at Defenders of Wildlife.

A spill in the Arctic similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster could also wreak havoc with the region's Alaskan Native communities and unique wildlife, activists say.

Rebecca Nolan, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the suspension of drilling was a "tentative first step in the right direction" which she hoped would lead to a permanent moratorium.

"What polar bears need now is a permanent ban on the dirty, dangerous offshore drilling in the Arctic that threatens their very survival," Nolan said in a statement.