Energy and environmental advocates predictably lined up their opposing positions on President Obama’s move to restrict offshore oil and gas development in Atlantic and Arctic waters.
But there is wide agreement that Obama’s sweeping use of a 1953 law — rather than an executive order that might be more easily overturned by an incoming Trump administration — is headed for a court challenge.
“Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs, and could make energy less affordable for consumers. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent ban, and we look forward to working with the new administration on fulfilling the will of American voters on energy production,” said Eric Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute.
Obama used a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which has previously been applied only to protect smaller marine wildlife habitats, like coral reefs and walrus feeding grounds. This time, he removed areas off the Virginia coast, and in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, from the offshore oil and gas leasing plan for 2017-2022.
“The move may be subject to reversal by the Trump administration, but it could take years of litigation and there is little legal precedent,” according to the Sierra Club.
“No president has ever rescinded a previous president’s permanent withdrawal of offshore areas from oil and gas development. If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court,” said Marissa Knodel of Friends of the Earth.
But the American Petroleum Institute contends Obama’s use of the law conflicts with the original intent of Congress to make the continental shelf “available for expeditious and orderly development.”
Trump can also undo the withdrawals with a presidential memorandum, as former president George W. Bush did in 2008 by making all shelf areas available for leasing, except designated marine sanctuaries, API argues.
One of the groups pushing the Obama administration is Oceana, which over the last two years mounted a campaign in the Mid-Atlantic and southeast states to bring coastal towns, tourism and fishing businesses into opposition. Allied groups in South Carolina expressed disappointment that Obama did not withdraw more areas off the southeast cost.
Much of that organizing was aimed to block seismic surveys, the use of towed air guns to profile seafloor geology as a precursor to exploratory drilling. The group wants the administration to block that activity as well, said Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s senior vice president for the United States.
“If offshore drilling is off the table for the foreseeable future, permits for seismic blasting should be denied,” Savitz said. “We are hopeful that President Obama will deny all pending permits for seismic air gun blasting off the East Coast.”
National Ocean Industries Association president Randall Luthi cast the Obama decision as a setback for U.S. competitiveness, and prospects for boosting energy exports to developing countries.
“While other countries are ramping up offshore oil and natural gas exploration in the Arctic and in the Atlantic basin, President Obama has benched the United States, dismissing his own advisors who have argued that energy development, particularly in the Arctic, is imperative to our national security,” Luthi said.
“We are hopeful that the incoming Trump administration can repair some of the damage done to the offshore energy industry and America’s energy security over the past eight years by putting policies in place that increase, rather than decrease, access to federal offshore areas,” he said.