On Tuesday, President Obama announced a surprising move to make most of the US Arctic Ocean off limits to oil and gas production indefinitely, along with a series of submarine canyons off the East Coast. The decision cites fragile ecosystems and, in the case of the Arctic, the high risk of accidents in an unforgiving environment. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the entire Canadian Arctic would be indefinitely closed to new drilling contracts, although this decision is subject to five-year revisions.
Excluding approximately 3 million acres in a coastal strip, which a document released by the Interior Ministry says “has great potential for oil and gas resources and is adjacent to the state’s existing oil and gas activity and infrastructure The other 125 million acres of Arctic seafloor north of Alaska will be off-limits to new leases. In the past, about 200,000 hectares had already been leased to oil and gas companies, although there is not much industrial activity on those leases due to the logistical challenges and high costs.
The Department of the Interior administers the US-controlled continental shelf and draws up five-year plans for lease sales. But Tuesday’s action isn’t an easily reversible five-year lease. Instead, President Obama uses the authority of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Aside from the Department of the Interior being responsible for leases, the law says that “the President of the United States may from time to time withdraw from disposition of any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf. “
Previous presidents have used this provision to set aside territories for 10 to 20 years, but Obama is not putting an end date on this decision.
With the incoming Trump administration looking to undo many of Obama’s environmental moves, this decision seems likely to follow a fight. But since this is not a simple executive action, it cannot simply be undone by another executive action.
The Obama administration thinks the law gives the president the power to withdraw areas but does not give the power to expand or restore areas. The Trump administration will almost certainly try to challenge that position, given its outspoken support for increasing fossil fuel leasing on public lands — an effort that has highlighted Trump’s choice of Secretary of the Interior.
Even if the Trump administration manages to reverse the move, the petroleum industry’s interest in the area is currently not strong. In 2008, a number of leases in the Arctic were sold, but almost all of them were abandoned in recent years because oil prices were far too low to make expensive Arctic exploration meaningful. Shell famously walked out last year after spending billions and drilling just one well, which failed to yield as hoped.