Obama Bans New Oil Drilling on Millions of Acres of U.S. Waters

bloomberg-resize-01Bloomberg | December 20, 2016 | Jennifer A. Dlouhy & Josh Wingrove

President Barack Obama banned new offshore oil and gas development in more than 100 million acres of the U.S. Arctic and undersea canyons in the Atlantic Ocean, an announcement certain to provoke a fight with the Republican-led Congress and his successor in the White House.

In a announcement coordinated between two of the world’s biggest oil producers, Canada committed to freeze new offshore leasing in its waters and review the matter every five years.

"These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth," Obama said in a written 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."

The move -- announced a month before Obama leaves the White House -- is sure to draw a legal challenge, and there is scant legal precedent on the matter. President-elect Donald Trump may rescind Obama’s order, but the 1953 statute Obama is invoking doesn’t include an explicit provision for reversal and that question could be tied up in court for years.

Although Obama’s decision was cast primarily as safeguarding 31 ecologically precious Atlantic canyons and "fragile Arctic waters," it was a major victory for environmental activists who have been arguing that even broader climate change concerns should drive the White House to rule out drilling in mostly untouched U.S. waters. Environmentalists said the decision sends a message to the world that the U.S. knows the warming Earth can’t afford to burn "extreme oil" locked under now-protected Arctic and Atlantic waters.

"This is a gift to the public and to our kids that will rank with any in the history of American conservation," said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The decision builds on Obama’s earlier decision to rule out selling new leases in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific from 2017 to 2022. But Tuesday’s announcement, based on the so-called 12(a) provision of Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, is different because it explicitly puts certain areas permanently off limits for oil exploration and production.

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