On Thursday afternoon, President Obama took to his newly-minted personal Twitter account to answer questions about climate change. After fielding a question about climate denial, the president took on the controversial question of drilling in the Arctic — something that has been seen as contradictory to his interest in fighting climate change.
— Ben Alexander (@BigBennyFL) May 28, 2015
President Obama began by pointing out that he has already shut off the most sensitive Arctic areas to drilling, including the Bristol Bay, home to a number of endangered species and 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood. In April, his administration also finalized a proposal to set aside a majority of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, which prevent drilling across some 12 million acres across northeastern Alaska.
But according to the president, it’s impossible to stop oil exploration in the Arctic completely.
.@BigBennyFL 2/ But since we can't prevent oil exploration completely in region we're setting the highest possible standards
— President Obama (@POTUS44) May 28, 2015
.@BigBennyFL 3/ already rejected Shell's original proposal as inadequate which shows we're serious.
— President Obama (@POTUS44) May 28, 2015
Despite low global crude prices (helped along by a natural gas boom in the United States), the Arctic remains an appealing long-term development project for oil companies — it’s one of the last untapped areas on the planet, and by some estimates could hold as much as 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources. Oil companies like Shell, which recently received the green light from the Obama administration to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea as soon as this summer, have been trying to gain access to the Arctic for years; Shell alone has spent over $6 billion and spent more than 6 years fighting legal battles to gain access to the Arctic.
Theoretically, Obama could have tried to keep Shell and other oil companies out of the Arctic in a few different ways. The most stringent level of protection, according to Greenpeace’s Cassady Sharp, would be to declare the Chukchi Sea as a marine sanctuary — the marine equivalent to defining an area as wilderness. Oil and gas drilling is generally prohibited in marine areas designated as National Marine Sanctuaries by NOAA regulations. But designating an area as a marine sanctuary takes a long time — and has to undergo a great deal of environmental review — making it unlikely that Obama could successfully oversee that designation before leaving office.
According to Niel Lawrence, project director for National Resources Defense Council’s Alaska Project, Obama could also use the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) to withdraw the entire U.S. Arctic outer continental shelf from leasing eligibility — something that might be a permanent solution, since the OCSLA doesn’t specifically address whether or not a future president can undo past actions. Obama previously used the OCSLA to protect Bristol Bay and certain boundary areas within the Chukchi and Beaufort seas from future oil and gas development.
Attempting to take the Arctic off the table completely by issuing a moratorium could also be tricky — any moratorium would likely be challenged in court immediately, and the legal burden would be on the Obama administration to prove that the area should not be drilled. The precedent for such a thing would not be in the administration’s favor: in 2011, a New Orleans judge found the Obama administration acted in contempt by continuing its deepwater drilling moratorium following the BP oil spill, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In the short-term, Obama could cancel the lease that gives Shell — and other oil companies — the right to drill in the area, something that 18 senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked him to do in a letter earlier this week. The current lease runs through 2017, meaning that canceling the lease would prevent Shell and other companies from drilling in the area at least through 2017. At that time, however, whatever administration follows Obama could reopen the area to drilling, and wouldn’t necessarily be as inclined to include the limitations and regulations Obama claims his administration is requiring.
But even those regulations might not be as stringent as Obama claims. Lawrence called the regulations a “red herring” in an email to ThinkProgress, explaining that for 2015, there are no new safety requirements with which Shell must comply.
“Shell still has not submitted a new or updated Oil Spill Response Plan for 2015,” Lawrence said. “We also know that there still are no spill response methods proven effective in situ in an Arctic Ocean environment.”
To some, however, even a short-term stall on Arctic drilling could be seen as a win. “It is true that the next president could potentially undo whatever he does, but that’s true for any executive action,” Sharp told ThinkProgress. “All of this is completely within the power of the Obama administration and the executive branch. It’s really never too late.”