President Obama Bans Offshore Drilling in North Atlantic and Arctic

Published January 10, 2017

With only a month left in his term of office, President Barack Obama used executive authority granted the president under a little used provision of 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban, possibly permanently, offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean.

Obama acted in conjunction with Canada, which also prohibited drilling in waters in the Arctic controlled by it. Obama’s action bans drilling in almost all American waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, as well as in federal waters stretching from New England to Virginia.

Tying Trump’s Hands on Drilling

The December 20, 2016 Washington Times reports, President Obama’s action clearly targeted the Trump administration, trying to limit Trump’s ability to undo Obama’s environmental legacy. In a conference call Obama administration officials claimed President-elect Trump would be unable to overturn the ban, saying while the 1953 law gives a president authority to ban drilling in areas, it contains no specific provisions giving a president power to reopen them.

“No president has ever acted to reverse an indefinite withdrawal, and we believe there is a strong legal basis that these withdrawals … will go forward and will stand the test of time. There is no authority for subsequent presidents to un-withdraw, said a senior Obama administration official on a conference call Tuesday afternoon, reports the Washington Times.

Prominent Democrats in Congress agree with the administration’s assessment.

According to the Washington Times, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) indicated Obama’s move was aimed to stymie any efforts Trump may take to expand offshore oil and gas production.

“We know that in the Trump administration, there will be a Big Oil bull’s-eye on our coastlines for offshore drilling,” the Times reports Markey said. “We must not allow the Trump administration to open our waters off of New England to dangerous offshore oil and gas drilling.”

Since no president has ever tried to reverse a predecessor’s offshore drilling ban, any attempt to overturn the ban by Trump would be precedent setting.

‘Weakens National Security’

The American Petroleum Institute (API) has urged Trump to reverse Obama’s ban, arguing it is bad as a matter of law and policy.

President Obama’s offshore ban “ignores congressional intent, our national security, and vital good-paying job opportunities for our shipyards, unions and businesses of all types across the country.” API spokesman Erik Milito told the Times. “Our national security depends on our ability to produce oil and natural gas here in the United States.

“This proposal would take us in the wrong direction just as we have become world leader in production and refining of oil and natural gas, and in reduction of carbon emissions,” said Milito,. “Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs, and could make energy less affordable for consumers.”

‘Abuse of Power’

Republicans in Congress also objected to Obama’s action with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) issuing a statement calling it “naive and unprecedented.” Bishop’s statement also said, “This is not a moral calling; it’s an abuse of power.”

Fellow Natural Resources Committee member Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) called Obama’s action “a vain attempt to salvage a personal legacy for himself,” in a statement issued by his office after the President announced the offshore drilling ban.

“A permanent ban is clearly not the scope of power provided by law, nor is it in the interest of the United States,” continued Duncan’s statement. “However, I am not shocked at his willingness to put his political legacy before his country.

“Instead of listening to rebuke after rebuke of his policies in successive elections, he would rather act like a king. Governors in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia have all agreed energy exploration off the coast would be a blessing to our states, and yet he ignores the will of the American people.” Duncan’s statement said

Assessing the ability of Obama’s action to withstand any attempt by President-elect Trump to rescind it or legal actions to have it overturned, Duncan wrote, there a “strong likelihood” Congress or the courts will strike down Obama’s move, “just like his plans for executive amnesty, unconstitutional recess appointments, and illegally transferring terrorists [from Guantanamo Bay] to U.S. soil.”

Any legal challenges to President Obama’s offshore drilling ban could take years to settle.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.