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President Barack Obama speaks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) Conference at Dena?ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, Monday, Aug. 31, 2015. Obama opened a historic three-day trip to Alaska aimed at showing solidarity with a state often overlooked by Washington, while using its changing landscape as an urgent call to action on climate change. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Obama just took action to prevent Trump from allowing oil drilling in the Arctic


In an attempt to cement his environmental legacy, President Obama on Tuesday announced moves that could prevent President-elect Trump from allowing oil and gas drilling in large swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Using a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Obama administration ordered a ban on oil exploration across the bulk of the Arctic Ocean, as well as a string of canyons in the Atlantic. The areas will be "indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing," the announcement read. 

Canada banning Arctic drilling, too

The announcement was made in partnership with Canada, which also promised an indefinite freeze on oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters to be reviewed every five years, senior administration officials told reporters on a Tuesday call. 

"This action is distinct in that we are taking this action alongside the Canadians with whom we share an Arctic environment," an administration official said. "This is part of our foreign policy objectives in the Arctic."

Protecting the environment

Obama administration officials said the decision was made in order to protect environmentally sensitive ecosystems in both the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. The Arctic, they said, is too remote, sensitive, and unpredictable a place to expose to the risks of an oil spill.

They cited a Department of Interior study that showed a 75 percent chance of a spill greater than 1,000 barrels should an oil company fully produce oil in the federally-owned portion of the Arctic's Chukchi Sea.

Environmentalists brace for a big reversal of climate gains under a Trump administration

The announcement comes as environmentalists fret about Donald Trump's incoming administration. The president-elect has nominated several conservative oil and gas allies to top cabinet positions.

Senior Obama administration officials said Tuesday they believed the ban on Arctic drilling would "stand the test of time" -- in other words, that Trump would not be able to reverse the ban. 

They noted that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act does not currently include a provision for reversal, and that no president has attempted to undo his predecessor's decision under that law before. However, as Bloomberg notes, the Republican-led Congress could decide to eliminate the underlying provision empowering Obama’s move if it wanted to.

Environmental groups were particularly pleased with Tuesday's news.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer called Obama's move "historic and heroic."

Oil industry reacts

Members of the oil and gas industry, however, were not as pleased. The American Petroleum Industry released a statement  Tuesday calling for the incoming Trump administration to reverse Obama's decision.

"Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs, and could make energy less affordable for consumers," API Upstream Director Erik Milito said in the statement. 

Fortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent ban.
API Upstream Director Erik Milito

'No such thing' as permanent ban

“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,” Milito added. “The U.S. offshore industry has a long history of safe operations that have advanced the energy security of our nation and contributed significantly to our nation’s economy.” 

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