White House

With Trump on horizon, Obama rushes to block oil drilling in parts of Atlantic, Arctic

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. AP

President Barack Obama on Tuesday used his executive authority to block the sale of new offshore drilling rights in much of the U.S. Arctic and parts of the Atlantic, a move that could restrict oil production indefinitely in those areas.

Obama invoked a seldom-used provision in a 1953 law that allows him to prevent the sale of drilling rights in certain U.S. waters. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton also used the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect specific areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans for a limited time.

“The president’s bold action recognizes the vulnerable marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, their critical and irreplaceable ecological value, as well as the unique role that commercial fishing and subsistence use plays in the regions’ economies and cultures,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Tuesday’s announcement by the White House was coordinated with a similar action by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to prevent drilling in large areas of the Arctic.

The move to lock in the ocean protections comes as Obama enters his final month in office. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a vocal drilling advocate, to head his Energy Department. While Obama’s action is likely to be challenged, the lack of legal precedent may ground it in years of litigation under the Trump administration, as the statute does not include a provision to reverse it.

“If President Obama acts to permanently protect important areas of the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling, he will be making a good decision, a smart business decision, based on science and facts,” Jacqueline Savitz, the environmental group Oceana’s senior vice president for the U.S., said in a statement. “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.”

Environmental groups have argued that offshore drilling threatens lucrative coastal tourism and the fishing industry along the coast.

Offshore-drilling proponents said Tuesday that they expected Trump to undo Obama’s move, which they see as a hindrance to energy independence and thousands of energy industry jobs.

“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,” Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement to McClatchy. “This proposal would take us in the wrong direction. . . . Blocking offshore exploration would weaken our national security, destroy good-paying jobs and could make energy less affordable for consumers.”

The Obama administration released a five-year offshore drilling schedule in March that excluded the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a significant reversal from its original plan and a major victory for coastal communities and environmental activists who’d fought the proposal. Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., vowed to undo the administration’s offshore drilling plan.

“In its final days, the Obama administration is throwing up more barriers to American energy development,” Ryan said in a statement. “This plan to exclude the resource-rich Arctic from exploration possibilities squanders our ability to harness the abundant, affordable energy sources that power our economy.”

Environmental groups galvanized around the issue after the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management released a draft of the five-year plan that included leasing waters off the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia in 2021. The Interior Department received more than 1 million comments on the proposed draft.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown called on the president to permanently ban new offshore oil and gas drilling off California’s coast. In North Carolina, 29 towns and cities have passed resolutions against offshore drilling and seismic testing since 2014, according to Oceana. In South Carolina, 23 municipalities representing every coastal town and city in the state formally opposed oil exploration off their coastline. A coalition of more than 400 small businesses called on Gov. Nikki Haley to reverse her support for oil exploration, which she has said will bring jobs and energy independence.

There was also opposition to Atlantic offshore drilling from other departments, including the Pentagon, which conducts military maneuvers, live training exercises and missile tests off the same coastline.

In his second term, Obama has placed several regulations on oil and natural gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing and methane emissions.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen