Obama throws down the gauntlet on Arctic, Atlantic drilling


The Obama administration had already telegraphed that it was likely to impose what amounts to a ban on oil-and-natural-gas drilling off the Atlantic coastline and also in the Arctic waters near Alaska. At a moment when the world is looking to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, neither the plan to expand drilling in the seafood-laden waters off the tourist beaches of the American South nor the extreme risks of an oil spill in the frigid Arctic makes any sense. And the president — who launched his term in office with an “all of the above” approach to energy that greatly expanded U.S. oil-and-gas production — must be applauded for that change in course. This week, with less than a month left in his presidency, Obama made the drilling ban official, with the added news that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is working with the White House to bar energy exploration in Canada’s stretch of the Arctic coastline.

The New York Times hailed the move in an editorial:

President Obama’s decision to forbid oil and gas drilling in nearly all United States waters in the Arctic is in itself a spectacular environmental gift, offering protection to what he accurately described as a “sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth.”

It also adds one more chapter, though probably not the last, to the administration’s eight-year record of rebalancing the scale between the conservation of natural resources and their exploitation. And it sharpens an already glaring contrast between Mr. Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, who on the basis of his cabinet appointments alone seems hellbent on reviving the “drill, baby, drill” sensibilities of the George W. Bush administration.

The White House announcement was coordinated with similar steps announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. Neither announcement affects state-owned waters along the coasts, but together they will shield nearly all of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska from drilling.

Mr. Obama based his decision on a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which governs oil and gas activities in federal waters. The provision gives a president unilateral authority to “withdraw from disposition” any unleased lands on the shelf. Despite Senator Ted Cruz’s complaint that this was simply one more “Obama abuse of power,” the provision, though rarely used, goes back as far as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it to protect the reefs off Key Largo, and has since been invoked by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. Mr. Obama previously used it to bar drilling in the rich fishing grounds of Alaska’s Bristol Bay and parts of the Bering Sea.

As the editorial notes, drilling in the Arctic had already proved a dangerous, money-wasting fool’s errand, and yet Big Oil was determined to hold onto its rights to drill in the region — and anywhere else that it wants to. With this move by Obama, along with his decision to order further environmental reviews and hold up the Dakota Access pipeline and to block the Keystone XL pipeline altogether, the outgoing president is determined to leave Washington with a flurry of activity to both protect the environment and stymie climate change.

And yet there clear is another motive here. Obama knows that the incoming president, Donald Trump, has assembled a team of oilmen and climate-change deniers to run his environmental ship; even his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is the CEO of the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil. The current administration’s new policies will force Trump to make a public show of reversing them, and some of these maneuvers can’t be easily overturned.  If nothing else, it all buys some valuable time for those of us who are determined to protect Planet Earth for the next four years. We owe President Obama a debt of gratitude.

Read more about President Obama’s ban on Arctic and Atlantic drilling from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/opinion/leaving-the-arctic-alone.html?ref=opinion

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2016 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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