Obama expected to bar drilling in Atlantic, Arctic
Honolulu — President Barack Obama is expected to order wide swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans placed permanently off-limits for oil drilling, people briefed on the administration’s plan said, in an 11th-hour push for environmental protection before he leaves office.
Obama was planning to announce the move on Tuesday, said the individuals, who requested anonymity to discuss the decision before the announcement. The White House declined to comment.
The move helps put some finishing touches on Obama’s environmental legacy while also testing President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to unleash the nation’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves. Environmental groups were hoping the ban, despite relying on executive powers, will be difficult for a future president to reverse.
Obama is expected to use an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. The statute says that “the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”
A permanent ban would mark the culmination of a slow reversal by Obama’s administration, which had been considering opening a broad area of the Atlantic Coast to drilling, but then backed away from that idea. Earlier this year, the administration removed potential Atlantic lease sales from its blueprint for offshore drilling. But that ban only applies to a five-year period starting in 2017, and could be more easily reversed by Trump in his own five-year blueprint.
In issuing a permanent ban, Obama appears to be trying to tie the hands of his successor. Trump has vowed a domestic energy revolution and is filling his Cabinet with nominees deeply opposed to Obama’s environmental and climate change actions.
Along the Atlantic seaboard, states have had mixed reactions to the possibility of drilling. In Florida, the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, a Trump supporter, has raised concerns about the possible effects to the state’s beaches and fishing industry, and residents in North Carolina’s Outer Banks protested a move toward ocean drilling. But officials in South Carolina and Virginia have expressed support for the economic benefit of new oil jobs.
Environmental groups were calling for a permanent ban even before the presidential election, but Trump’s victory has provided greater urgency for them and for businesses that rely on tourism and fishing. Trump has said that he intends to use all available fuel reserves for energy self-sufficiency — and that it’s time to be opening up offshore drilling.
Industry groups are confident that the ban will not stand and Trump can simply issue a new proclamation after taking office that would allow for oil and gas production in the Atlantic. They point to President George W. Bush, who in July 2008 lifted some executive bans on Outer Continental Shelf leasing and drilling.
“There’s no such thing as a permanent ban,” said Erik Milito, a policy director at the American Petroleum Institute.
But Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the result of a Trump proclamation isn’t so clear-cut. He said the statute says a president can withdraw waters from the country’s leasing plans and “it doesn’t say you can put back in.”
If Trump does issue an order reversing Obama’s proclamation, it would be up to environmental groups or others to challenge his actions in court. If he doesn’t, then it would be up to Congress to intervene.
“My guess is that Congress has better things to do,” Lawrence said. “The industry is not clamoring to get into these places. Any return on investment is decades away.”
The Trump administration could also take a more gradual approach of changing the nation’s five-year leasing plan to put the waters back in play. That would buy groups on both sides time to make their case about the need or lack thereof to drill off the Atlantic coast.
Milito said keeping oil and gas production in the Atlantic as an option is important in the event U.S. reserves elsewhere are depleted. He said it’s important not to have to rely on other countries for oil and gas supplies to ensure affordability and availability.
“We have to look to the future so that we can maintain our status as an energy superpower and so that we can continue to rely on U.S. oil and gas production to fulfill our economic needs,” Milito said.
Fourteen senators had signed a letter calling on Obama to ban offshore drilling permanently. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., disputed the notion that future administrations could undo Obama’s order without congressional approval.
“Declaring the Atlantic and the Arctic off-limits to Big Oil is a step the president can take immediately to show that we as a nation are committed to the future of our shore towns, our beaches, and our environment,” Menendez said.