President Obama declared wide swaths of the Arctic Ocean and 31 Atlantic canyons off limits to oil and gas drilling on Tuesday, part of an 11th-hour conservation action to protect underwater habitats.He should have added "free from job opportunity and economic development" too, but that wouldn't have sounded nearly as sexy.
Obama's decision comes as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced similar measures Tuesday, as the two leaders called for an Arctic economy "free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity."
For Obama, the executive action burnishes an environmental legacy that includes protecting more ocean areas from development than any other president in history. "This withdrawal prevents consideration of this area for any future mineral leasing for purposes of exploration, development, or production," Obama said in a presidential memorandum, a directive similar in effect to an executive order.Liberal believe in the "liberal ratchet"; any gain made by their side is cast in stone, while any move contrary to their desires of the moment are deemed repealable by a simple presidential order.
But unlike other executive orders, it's unclear whether Obama's action could tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump. Obama is relying on a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, which says: "The president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf."
Obama said the withdrawal was "for a time period without specific expiration." While the White House did not use the word "permanent" to describe the action, many environmental groups did.
But there's precedent for presidents reversing similar actions. In 1998, President Bill Clinton used the same law to renew a moratorium on offshore drilling until 2012. But in 2008, President George W. Bush reversed course, ending the moratorium four years early.That, however, is largely true, except for the "moving away from fossil fuels". Oil is a commodity, and while prices are low (thanks to fracking and the war on fracking by the Saudis and Russia), the incentive to drill in the Arctic and the outer shelf is low. It's only when oil is scarce, or our foreign supplies are cut off for geopolitical reasons that we will attempt to access them. However, the threat of having them available also serves to make such events less likely. Even as is, when we need them, they'll still be available. But we might need a Republican president and congress to be able to access them.
Republicans called the action "an abuse of power," and said it would lead to more reliance on foreign oil.
"The extremes to which this president will go to appease special interests never ceases to amaze," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. "It is nothing more than ideological chest-thumping from the president for the far left."
But Obama said in a statement that the drilling ban would have little short-term impact. While there are oil and gas reserves in the upper Arctic, most of them are cost prohibitive to extract unless oil prices triple.
Even then, Obama said, "it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels."
President Trump should roll ex-President Obama executive orders in reverse order of date, by the newest first. The closer to the last day they are issued, the less well thought out, and the more provocative they are likely to be.