Obama bans new drilling off At­lantic, Arc­tic coasts

Law adds high hur­dle for re­ver­sal by Trump


Vow­ing that his suc­ces­sor won’t be able to re­verse his ac­tions, Pres­i­dent Obama on Tues­day used ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity to per­ma­nently ban new off­shore drilling in fed­er­ally owned wa­ters off the At­lantic coast and in the Arc­tic Ocean.

Mr. Obama used au­thor­ity in a sec­tion of the Outer Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf Lands Act, a 1953 law, to ban the drilling. The law in­cludes a pro­vi­sion that al­lows a pres­i­dent to put cer­tain wa­ters off-lim­its to oil and gas pro­duc­tion.

The pres­i­den­tial au­thor­ity was used in con­junc­tion with sim­i­lar ac­tions by Canada, which also moved to pro­hibit drilling in its own Arc­tic wa­ters. The U.S. move will ban drilling in the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can wa­ters in the Chukchi and Beau­fort seas, in ad­di­tion to ar­eas off the At­lantic coast stretch­ing from New Eng­land to Vir­ginia.

“Th­ese ac­tions, and Canada’s par­al­lel ac­tions, pro­tect a sen­si­tive and unique ecosys­tem that is un­like any other re­gion on Earth,” Mr. Obama said in a state­ment. “They re­flect the sci­en­tific as­sess­ment that, even with the high safety stan­dards that

both our coun­tries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this re­gion are sig­nif­i­cant and our abil­ity to clean up from a spill in the re­gion’s harsh con­di­tions is lim­ited.”

Mr. Obama said drilling in the ar­eas is sim­ply not eco­nom­i­cal, though some crit­ics say other­wise.

White House of­fi­cials also made clear that they be­lieve Mr. Trump, who as­sumes power Jan. 20, can­not re­verse the ac­tion. The 1953 law, they said, gives a pres­i­dent au­thor­ity to ban drilling in ar­eas but con­tains no 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,” a se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told re­porters on a con­fer­ence call Tues­day af­ter­noon. “There is no au­thor­ity for sub­se­quent pres­i­dents to un-with­draw.”

No pres­i­dent has ever tried to re­verse his pre­de­ces­sor’s off­shore drilling bans, set­ting up a his­toric le­gal case if Mr. Trump chooses to try to re­open the ar­eas.

Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, left lit­tle doubt that the ac­tion was car­ried out with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in mind.

“We know that in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, there will be a Big Oil bull’s-eye on our coast­lines for off­shore drilling,” Mr. Markey said. “As Pres­i­dent-elect Trump nom­i­nates fos­sil fuel al­lies to his Cab­i­net, Pres­i­dent Obama has in­stead put the in­ter­ests of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans ahead of those of Big Oil with th­ese per­ma­nent pro­tec­tions. We must not al­low the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to open our wa­ters off of New Eng­land to dan­ger­ous off­shore oil and gas drilling.”

Ex­pect­ing a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion much friend­lier to oil and gas in­ter­ests, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists have been urg­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to take ac­tion be­fore Mr. Trump as­sumes of­fice. The Na­tional Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil said Mr. Obama “has an un­prece­dented op­por­tu­nity to rack up im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal gains.”

“And with Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump — who calls cli­mate change a hoax and plans to dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand frack­ing, coal mining and oil drilling — tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary, th­ese last days are more crit­i­cal than ever,” the group said.

The Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute is urg­ing Mr. Trump to re­scind Mr. Obama’s ac­tions, say­ing there is no such thing as a per­ma­nent ban on drilling. API of­fi­cial Erik Mil­ito said Mr. Obama’s move “ig­nores con­gres­sional in­tent, our na­tional se­cu­rity and vi­tal good-pay­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties for our ship­yards, unions and busi­nesses of all types across the coun­try.”

“Our na­tional se­cu­rity de­pends on our abil­ity to pro­duce oil and nat­u­ral gas here in the United States,” Mr. Mil­ito said. “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. Block­ing off­shore ex­plo­ration weak­ens our na­tional se­cu­rity, de­stroys good-pay­ing jobs and could make en­ergy less af­ford­able for con­sumers.”

House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee Chair­man Rob Bishop, Utah Repub­li­can, called Mr. Obama’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion “naive and un­prece­dented.”

“This is not a moral call­ing; it’s an abuse of power,” Mr. Bishop said. “Scratch below the fa­cade of prag­ma­tism, and it is noth­ing more than ide­o­log­i­cal chest-thump­ing from the pres­i­dent for the far left.”

Rep. Jeff Dun­can, South Carolina Repub­li­can and a mem­ber of the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee, said Mr. Obama’s ac­tion “is a vain at­tempt to sal­vage a per­sonal legacy for him­self.” He said the le­gal pro­vi­sion is “vague and untested.”

“A per­ma­nent ban is clearly not the scope of power pro­vided by law, nor is it in the in­ter­est of the United States,” Mr. Dun­can said. “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.”

Mr. Dun­can said there is a “strong like­li­hood” that Congress or the courts will strike down Mr. Obama’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion, “just like his plans for ex­ec­u­tive amnesty, un­con­sti­tu­tional re­cess ap­point­ments and il­le­gally trans­fer­ring ter­ror­ists [de­tained at Guan­tanamo Bay] to U.S. soil.”

By us­ing the 12(a) pro­vi­sion of the 1953 law to ban drilling in U.S. ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, le­gal chal­lenges are al­most cer­tain. But ac­tivists say a court case could take years to re­solve.

Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown, a Demo­crat, last week also asked Mr. Obama to ban drilling in the Pa­cific Ocean off the state’s coast.

“Mil­lions of peo­ple around the world will be grate­ful to Pres­i­dent Obama for per­ma­nently pro­tect­ing much of the Arc­tic and the At­lantic coasts from cat­a­strophic oil ex­plo­ration and de­vel­op­ment,” Green­peace spokesman Travis Ni­chols said in a state­ment.

Lu­cas Frances of the Arc­tic En­ergy Cen­ter, a group funded by oil and gas in­ter­ests, said its re­search shows that about three-quar­ters of Na­tive­group re­spon­dents in Alaska sup­port off­shore en­ergy.

“If re­ports are true, and taken with last week’s news that sales of Beau­fort Sea and North Slope leases gen­er­ated $18 mil­lion, it is hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is play­ing pol­i­tics with the fu­ture of Alaska,” he said.

Jacqueline Savitz, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group Oceana, said the move by Mr. Obama would be “a smart busi­ness de­ci­sion, based on science and facts.”

“This de­ci­sion would help to pro­tect ex­ist­ing lu­cra­tive coastal tourism and fish­ing busi­nesses from off­shore drilling, which prom­ises smaller, short-lived re­turns and threat­ens coastal liveli­hoods,” she said. “East Coast com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses that de­pend on a healthy ocean would fi­nally be able to rest as­sured that they will be spared from the worst im­pacts of dirty and dan­ger­ous off­shore drilling.”


The Po­lar Pi­o­neer was the first of two drilling rigs that Royal Dutch Shell was out­fit­ting for Arc­tic oil ex­plo­ration. Pres­i­dent Obama on Tues­day or­dered wide swaths of the At­lantic and Arc­tic oceans to be placed per­ma­nently off-lim­its for oil drilling in an eleven­th­hour push for en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion be­fore he leaves of­fice.

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