President Obama has announced what amounts to a ban of offshore drilling in huge swaths of continental shelf in both the Alaskan Arctic Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, a decision which came after years of pushing by environmental groups.

Using authority derived from Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the White House banned drilling in a 115 acre area making up 98 percent of federally owned lands in the Alaskan Arctic and a 3.8 million acre stretch of the Atlantic extending from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Canadian border. By taking this route, rather than issuing an Executive Order, Obama made it legally difficult for Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s administration to reverse this action.

Environmental groups and Democratic senators have praised the decision, while Republican congressional members and industry groups have denounced it.

Today … the United States is taking historic steps to build a strong Arctic economy, preserve a healthy Arctic ecosystem and protect our fragile Arctic waters, including designating the bulk of our Arctic water and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing,” the White House said in a statement, which also pointed to the “need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels,” as guided by climate science.


President-elect Donald Trump is a climate change denier who repeatedly promised on the campaign trail and during his post-election “Victory Tour” that he would “unleash” more hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of oil and gas, and push for more “clean coal” production. Trump also supports increased offshore drilling.

Industry, Republicans React

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, came out strongly against the Obama administration’s move.

“The only thing more shocking than this reckless, short-sighted, last-minute gift to the extreme environmental agenda is that President Obama had the nerve to claim he is doing Alaska a favor,” she said in a press release, which featured the state’s congressional delegation slamming Obama for making the decision.

President Obama has once again treated the Arctic like a snow globe, ignoring the desires of the people who live, work, and raise a family there. I cannot wait to work with the next administration to reverse this decision.”

Murkowski, a climate change denier who said she did not vote for Trump and called for him to drop out of the race on October 8, is a major recipient of oil and gas industry campaign money. She has taken $1,353,794 from the industry throughout her congressional career.

Murkowski and the Alaska delegation were not alone in their denouncement of the Obama maneuver, with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also bemoaning it on Twitter. Ryan has taken $1,223,182 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry during his congressional career.

Industry groups such as the Consumer Energy Alliance, American Petroleum Institute (API), and Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) all scoffed at the Obama decision in press statements.

“We disagree with this last-minute political rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and contest this decision by the outgoing administration as disingenuous,” said IPAA in a press release. “With exactly one month left in office, President Obama chose to succumb to environmental extremists demands to keep our nation’s affordable and abundant energy supplies away from those who need it the most by keeping them in the ground.”

Cautious Optimism

However, Democratic Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have shown support for the current administration’s move.

Meanwhile, environmental groups praised the decision, but noted the likelihood that the incoming Trump administration will attempt to challenge it. In addition, groups pointed to the action’s limits, as oil and gas drilling will continue in the Gulf of Mexico and exploration could proceed in large swaths of the Atlantic.

This is an important move, but we’re still looking forward to the day when all communities are protected from fossil fuel development,” May Boeve, 350.org’s executive director, said in a press release. “Everyone deserves the right to safe environment and the benefits of a clean energy economy. That includes those in the Gulf and other areas facing dangerous oil, gas, and coal expansion.”

Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s senior vice president for the United States, also called for the Obama administration to lock in a ban of seismic airgun blasting in the southern portion of the U.S. Atlantic Ocean offshore continental shelf.

“As we celebrate this important step forward, we must not forget that a vast stretch of water from Delaware to Florida is still at risk from unnecessary seismic airgun blasting, an extremely loud and dangerous process used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean’s surface,” Savitz said in a press release. “Seismic airguns create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean, firing intense blasts of compressed air every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks to months on end.”

“The government’s own estimates state that seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic could injure as many as 138,000 marine mammals like dolphins and whales, while disturbing the vital activities of millions more,” Savitz continued. “With offshore drilling off the table for the near future, permits for seismic airgun blasting should be denied.”

“Uncharted Waters”

One key question, of course, is what will take place next in U.S. federal courts after the almost certain challenge from the oil and gas industry. It is “unchartered waters,” both literally and figuratively, according to one expert.

It’s never been done before,” Patrick Parenteau, professor of environmental law at the University of Vermont, told The New York Times. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

The industry, though, has pointed to a precedent of 12(a) protections being reversed. The New York Times reported that after President Bill Clinton used this legal action to “withdraw 300 million acres from oil and gas drilling from an area that had already been designated as a marine sanctuary, President George W. Bush reinstated about 50 million acres to fossil fuel leases.”

Andrew Radford, API‘s senior policy advisor for offshore operations, told The Times that he sees the Bush precedent will be the one pursued by API, its industry allies, and the Trump administration to reverse Obama’s move.

Similar to how President Bush issued a memo in 2008 to add areas back in, we’re hopeful that the Trump administration will take a look at this to reverse that decision and we look forward to working with them to make that happen,” Radford said.

Teaser photo credit: Twelvism/Flickr. Some rights reserved.