Obama Bans Oil Drilling in Arctic, Atlantic

Trump won’t be able to override the ban, which has the force of law

By Paul Rauber

December 20, 2016


Photo by Explora_2005/iStock

On his way out of office, President Barack Obama is cementing his environmental legacy in ways that will be difficult for his successor to overturn. Today, he and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau banned oil and gas drilling in 115 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic Ocean, in a swath stretching from Maryland to Massachusetts. Earlier in the year, Obama had excluded these areas for a five-year period, but today’s action used a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that should make the withdrawal permanent. 

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth,” Obama said. “They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant, and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.” 

“By removing the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from the five-year plan, President Obama declared that the preservation of our waters from offshore drilling is paramount to protecting our beaches, the climate, and coastal economies,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “Today’s announcement reaffirms that fact and prevents future administrations from destroying our waters and coastal communities.” 

The 1953 OCSLA gave the federal government jurisdiction over all submerged lands more than three miles offshore—that is, outside of state coastal waters. It gives the Department of the Interior the ability to lease offshore tracts for oil and natural gas, but its section 12(a) specifically allows the president to “withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf.” Since there is no provision for a succeeding president to reverse such an order, it is presumed to be permanent. 

Today’s action follows a number of other moves by Obama to tie up long-simmering environmental issues. On December 15, his administration refused to renew expired mining lease applications for copper and nickel mines adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. On December 19, the Interior Department finalized a rule to protect coal-country rivers and streams by mandating that coal companies restore depleted surface mines to their premining condition. In recent years, many coal companies have declared bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers to pay the cost of such reclamation.

What You Can Do

Thank President Obama for protecting our Arctic and Atlantic oceans:In a joint announcement with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Obama permanently protected nearly the entire Arctic Ocean and a part of the Atlantic Ocean! Send a thank you today!