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What Trump Can and Can’t Do to Reverse President Obama’s Arctic Protections

Trump’s climate-denying administration love fossil fuels, but they’ll have to clear several legal hurdles to bring back Arctic drilling.

In the first month of his presidency, Donald Trump has issued a flurry of executive orders and memos seeking to make his dystopian vision for the future of America a reality. But despite his promises to double down on fossil fuels, we haven’t yet heard anything from the Trump administration on Arctic oil drilling.

But wait, you might be asking, didn’t President Obama protect the US Arctic permanently in November? Can Trump undo something permanent?

Here’s what you need to know.

First, let’s revisit exactly what President Obama did to protect the Arctic Ocean.

Most importantly, Obama used his presidential authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) to permanently withdraw much of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from oil and gas leasing. These areas can no longer be considered for oil and gas leasing — ever.

However, he did leave an area of the the Beaufort Sea open, the specific area where oil is most likely to be found. And of course, oil drilling still continues on land on Alaska’s north slope, and in Alaska’s coastal waters, which are controlled by state government.

And while not permanent protections, Obama did take the entire Arctic Ocean — including that one crucial stretch of the Beaufort Sea — out of the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Five Year Program 2017-2022 (aka the Five Year Program). So even though these areas still aren’t permanently protected, oil companies won’t be able to buy the rights to drill there until 2022 at the earliest.

Another thing President Obama did was refuse to extend leases in the Arctic Ocean still hanging around from years past. Which is a lot — almost all of the existing leases in the Beaufort Sea are set to expire this year and companies who had leases in the Chukchi Sea gave back all but one of them back last year. Add to that low oil prices and Shell’s $7 billion failure to find oil in the Chuckchi in 2015, and you can see why oil companies aren’t lining up to drill anytime soon.

Before we get to what could happen next, let’s consider words.

Words are important, and what is especially significant about Arctic Ocean withdrawal announcement is that the Obama administration acknowledged what the climate movement and many in Alaska’s coastal communities have been saying all along.

From the Interior Department press release:

“Risks associated with oil and gas activity in the remote, harsh and undeveloped Arctic are not worth taking when the nation has ample energy sources near existing infrastructure … Oil spill response and clean-up raises unique challenges in the Arctic and a spill could have substantial impacts on the region, particularly given the ecosystem fragility and limited available resources to respond to a spill.”

And from the fact sheet accompanying the announcement:

“If lease sales were to occur and [oil] production take place, it would be at a time when the scientific realities of climate change dictate that the United States and the international community must be transitioning its energy systems away from fossil fuels.”

To which we say: EXACTLY. Arctic oil drilling simply doesn’t make any sense.

So, What Can Trump Do?

Donald Trump campaigned on promises to move American backwards towards fossil fuels, and he’s already resurrected the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in his first month in office. So if you’re worried about what that stance means for the future of the Arctic, we’re with you.

The thing is, OCSLA gives a president the authority to permanently withdraw federal waters from drilling. It doesn’t include any language to allow the next president to undo that withdrawal (explained here).

Still, the oil industry has stated that they don’t agree with this analysis of the law, the courts have never ruled on it one way or the other, and the pro-drilling Alaska Congressional delegation is pushing to bring Arctic drilling back on the table. Trump may very well try to reverse President Obama’s Arctic protections and reopen the area to risky offshore drilling on his own, which would be illegal. Congress could pass a law undoing the withdrawal, but that would be a much longer process than executive action.

What’s true in either case is that the movement to protect the climate and our waters from drilling will need to be more active than ever. It was your activism that pushed Shell out of the Arctic in 2015 and forced President Obama to finally limit oil drilling in the region — we must commit to protecting these hard-fought victories.

This may be the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, but the fight is not over yet. Until it is, we must resist.

Senior Research Specialist Tim Donaghy also contributed to this post.

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