Obama Said to Use 1953 Law to Block Drilling in Arctic, Atlantic

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

President Barack Obama is preparing 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 indefinitely restrict oil production there, according to two people familiar with the decision.

Obama will invoke a provision in a 1953 law that gives him wide latitude to withdraw U.S. waters from future oil and gas leasing, said the people who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced. Until now the law has been used sparingly to permanently preserve coral reefs, walrus feeding grounds and marine sanctuaries.

Coming in the waning days of his administration, Obama’s move — which could come as soon as Tuesday — responds to a clamor from environmental activists who have looked for a way to lock in protections before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Related actions by Canada may be announced at the same time, the people said.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Using the so-called 12(a) provision to keep drilling out of big chunks of the nation’s territorial oceans is sure to draw a legal challenge, and there is scant legal precedent on the matter. Trump may rescind Obama’s order, but the statute doesn’t include a provision for reversal and that action may take years to work its way through court.

“Congress didn’t give the president that power to undo a withdrawal,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Trump may claim it. And it may even get upheld.”

Congressional Intent

But, he added, “a judge looking at congressional intent should say this is up to Congress and beyond the president’s power” to rescind.

The Republican-led Congress also could advance legislation to undo the ocean withdrawals and eliminate the underlying provision empowering Obama’s move.

Although oil companies have struggled to tap resources at the top of the globe, industry leaders say they will be needed to meet the world’s energy needs. The American Petroleum Institute has called the idea of permanently withdrawing offshore waters “incredibly short-sighted.”

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