A beluga celebrates. Obama's new Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area encompasses 112,300 square miles, and supports one of the largest seasonal marine mammal migrations in the world, including thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds ...
President Obama has burnished his environmental record announcing this week a permanent ban on offshore drilling in 98 percent of U.S. Arctic Ocean waters. The decision also affects 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic, an area with biologically unique deepwater canyons between Virginia and the Canadian border.
Back in September, Obama used the Antiquities Act, a law dating back to Republican conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt, to establish the Atlantic’s first large-scale offshore reserve, the 4,900-square-mile “Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument,” where oil drilling had also been proposed.
Rather than using an executive order that could be easily overturned by a President Trump, Obama moved to protect the Arctic Ocean and large parts of the Atlantic under a 1953 Eisenhower era law called the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act. Because the 1953 statute does not include explicit provisions for reversal, any attempt to rescind it could be tied up in court for years.
And, in a coordinated U.S.-Canadian pre-emptive strike against the anticipated power of an Exxon-Russia oil alliance in the incoming Trump White House, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simultaneously announced a ban on any new drilling in Canada’s Arctic Waters.
Efforts by a Republican Congress to revise Obama’s actions would likely have limited effect. According to Richard Charter of the Ocean Foundation:
“President Richard Nixon used the same [law] to establish a no-drilling preserve off Santa Barbara after touring the oil-covered beaches following the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. And that reserve is still there.”
Charter, an outspoken advocate for offshore drilling bans since the 1980s, told me “There’s no mechanism to undo what President Obama has done. Congress could try and prevent this [Lands Act provision] being used in the future but you can’t change a law retroactively.” He concludes,
“This is probably going to be extremely frustrating to incoming Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke . . . and the rest of the oil-saturated cabinet being assembled.”
But Big Oil thinks otherwise—at least publicly.
“We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy,” says Erik Milito, of the American Petroleum Institute.
In reality, however, even big oil isn’t that interested in new offshore oil leasing.
After spending twenty years and some seven billion dollars, Shell Oil recently gave up on drilling in the U.S. Chukchi Sea “for the foreseeable future.” The company hit a dry hole after several near disasters, including running a giant rig up onto the rocks off Kodiak Island during a winter storm.
The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft has said his agency does not have the resources needed to respond if an oil spill were to occur in the U.S. Arctic ocean north of Alaska.
And on the East Coast, the Navy has complained that offshore oil-drilling rigs there could pose a problem for National Security by limiting its ability to carry out war-fighting exercises in their Atlantic training range. The present Navy leadership has also committed to reducing its fleet’s dependence on fossil fuels by 50 percent over the next fifteen years, a goal likely to be reversed under the Trump administration.
The reality, of course, is that climate scientists have estimated that 70 percent of known reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left in the ground and under the seabed if the world is to avoid a catastrophic warming of more than two degrees Celsius.
When President Nixon used the OCS Lands Act to stop drilling in most of Santa Barbara’s waters back in 1969, the issue was energy versus marine and coastal pollution. Today, it’s a product-liability issue. Even if you could drill safely your product, used as directed, would still overheat the atmosphere and acidify the seas.
With more U.S. workers now employed in solar than either oil or coal, the Trump presidency could prove the last roar of the fossil fuel dinosaurs and their lobbyists and campaign donors.
And President Obama’s legacy, at least in part, will be where they don’t get to drill.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His book The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea, is available in paperback.