Obama Invokes 1953 Law to Ban Offshore Drilling

drilling rig

On Tuesday, President Obama announced a permanent ban on offshore drilling in wide areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard. This comes as President-Elect Donald Trump has secured enough electorial votes to secure the presidency.

Obama is attempting to nail down an environmental legacy before he leaves office, that may not be easily rolled out by the new Trump administration. The president has enacted a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which would give him the authority to act unilaterally to protect small portions of federal waters. These would only be temporary measures, but a way for the president to protect pristine waters none-the-less. 

According to the New York Times, "The move — considered creative by supporters and abusive by opponents — is one of many efforts by Mr. Obama to protect what environmental policies he can from a successor who has vowed to roll them back. The president, in concert with United Nations leaders, rushed countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, putting the multinational accord into force in record time, before Mr. Trump’s inauguration."

There have been rare occurrences of presidents using their federal powers to enact environmental justice measures. Bill Clinton had used his executive powers to remove 300 million acres from drilling, in which George W. Bush had redacted and established 50 million of those acres as drillable. These were marine sanctuaries that Clinton had originally protected. 

Those in the Obama camp feel that these acts will be swiftly reversed after President-Elect Trump takes office, though this hasn’t prevented action on President Obama’s part. On Wednesday, Obama’s administration had issued a final rule barring states from with-holding funds to Planned Parenthood and other similar organizations. In addition, the administration signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), whereas the measure reauthorizes the older Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both of these actions of regulatory ambitiousness shows how the administration is attempting to prepare for a Trump presidency, where many reforms may be halted if not immediately made rule or signed into law.

Just last week, the Army Corp of Engineers had denied a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had caused a stand-off between Native Americans and local police agencies. While this permit has been denied under an Obama administration, the permit could be reassessed once Trump takes office. Trump has promised to make mining and drilling a cornerstone of his energy policy. While it isn’t clear yet exactly what regulatory acts Trump plans to roll back, he has named drilling and mining enthusiast Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash) for Interior Secretary, which may not bode well for Obama’s attempts to curtail extensive drilling and mining in the U.S.

In conjunction with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s enactment of protection measures for the Arctic, in a statement Tuesday the Obama administration announced, “President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity. Together, these actions set the stage for deeper partnerships with other Arctic nations, including through the Arctic Council.”

Since Obama enacted these drilling protections under that 1953 law, while it may be difficult for the Trump administration to roll back these protections, it is doable. Republicans could amend the 1953 law, allowing reversal of bans by presidents, but this will require a 60 Senate member majority vote – the Senate has 52 Republicans. Any contesting of these new bans are very challenging for Republicans from a procedural standpoint, but can be realized if the Republican party are prepared for many years of challenges in the courts and Congress.

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