Congress Could Undo Obama’s Drilling Ban With New Legislation

Emily Jeffers of the Center for Biological Diversity says the ban on drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic is crucial to protect vulnerable species and avoid catastrophic climate disaster

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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.

The White House announced on Tuesday, a joint ban with Canada, on new oil and gas exploration drilling in the Arctic and in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Now, the Obama Administration said in a statement, quote, “That these actions and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth.” And what’s been really interesting about this, is whether or not these new bans will be able to be reversed or overturned by the incoming Trump Administration, and why did President Obama wait until the final weeks of his own administration to enact these bans?

Well, joining us to discuss this is Emily Jeffers. Emily is a staff attorney in the Oceans Program at the Center for Biological Diversity. She works via environmental law and advocacy, to protect marine species from the threats of climate change, over-fishing and pollution. Emily, thank you so much for being here.

EMILY JEFFERS: Thank you for having me.

KIM BROWN: Well, Emily, let’s start with how President Obama was able to put these bans into place, because these are simply not Executive Orders. The President used an obscure 1950s era law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, so please break this down for us.

EMILY JEFFERS: Sure. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, is a law that was enacted by Congress in the ’50s and that defines the outer continental shelf, which is the area between 3 and 200 miles offshore, and it provides for the exploration and development of oil and gas resources on the outer continental shelf, and allows for leasing of those areas. And the act has a provision in it, which allows presidents to withdraw areas permanently from the leasing program. And that is what President Obama did yesterday. He withdrew the Arctic and the Atlantic, in really a watershed moment for our climate and for our oceans.

KIM BROWN: And this ban does not include existing oil and gas leases in the area. So, how much drilling is happening in the Arctic now, and in the Atlantic, as well?

EMILY JEFFERS: Well, there is some drilling in state waters in the Arctic, and there are some federal leases up in the Arctic, but there are currently no active drilling operations in the Arctic, primarily because oil and gas companies simply have not found it financially feasible.

KIM BROWN: So, describe for us the areas in the Arctic and along the Atlantic Shelf that are included in this ban, and what types of creatures and habitat will now be further protected?

EMILY JEFFERS: Well, it’s really an enormous area. We’re talking about an Arctic about 115 million acres in the Arctic, and nearly 4 million acres in the Atlantic. Up in the Arctic, in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea, which is the area of the seas that we’re talking about, they’re home to endangered polar bears, bowhead whales, ring seals, bearded seals, a whole host of Arctic species, and the Atlantic, 31 underwater canyons with a huge range of environments and ecosystems.

KIM BROWN: This announcement was timed between the Obama Administration and the Trudeau Administration of Canada, to announce this on the same day. So, what has Canada agreed to do?

EMILY JEFFERS: Canada, I believe, is simply calling for a halt for… halting their program for the next five years. I don’t believe it’s a permanent withdrawal like Obama’s announcement.

KIM BROWN: This ban is an effort for the President to shore up his legacy on the environment, but he didn’t arrive here, right away. Mr. Obama came under tremendous pressure in 2015 after he announced portions of the southeast Atlantic would be opened up for oil and gas exploration, but he walked that back, earlier this year. And on the bans of new Arctic drilling came after Shell, Exxon and others announced that their exploratory drilling didn’t yield what they were expecting.

So, how can we credit Mr. Obama in this instance, at least in the Atlantic, he seemed to have reversed positions, but in the Arctic, I’m curious whether, if these oil companies had actually discovered the oil tracts that they hoped were there, would this ban even be going into place, at least as far as the Arctic is concerned?

EMILY JEFFERS: Well, as far as the Arctic is concerned, yes, oil companies have said, look, this is just not feasible for us. We can’t do it in a way that makes financial sense, so they’ve withdrawn for the foreseeable future. And I think that’s part of Obama’s rationale for withdrawing the Arctic, but also I think he recognized that the Arctic is a special environment and an oil spill would be catastrophic, and building on the momentum that the, Keep it in the Ground campaign, has really been waging during Obama’s presidency, that was the idea that we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground if we want to avoid catastrophic climate disaster.

I think that he’s starting to heed some of those warnings, and it’s good news for the Arctic. It’s good news for the polar bears and the bearded seals, because if there were an oil spill in the Arctic, according to all parties, there is just simply no cleanup. There’s no way to clean it up. So, for the Arctic, this is a big deal. It’s a big deal for the Atlantic, too, but I think that Obama in his latest five-year plan, the initial draft, had portions of the Atlantic open for leasing, but then in the final, which was recently released, that had also withdrawn the Atlantic for the next five years. So, this announcement yesterday takes out the Atlantic permanently, but it already was going to be out for the next five years.

KIM BROWN: Well, let’s expand on that for a moment, because I’m curious – does it really take out the Atlantic permanently? Because from what I understand the ban is for these canyons along the eastern seaboard, between Massachusetts and Virginia, and as you mentioned, there is a five-year moratorium on drilling in the southeastern portion of the Atlantic. But after this moratorium expires in five years, will those lands or, rather that ocean space, be eligible again for oil and gas exploration?

EMILY JEFFERS: The lands that Obama… or the ocean lands or the ocean shelf, Obama announced yesterday, that will be a permanent withdrawal, that is permanent and that is not revocable by the next administration. So, lands that are outside of the area designated yesterday, those are potentially open for leasing in the future. But the ones that Obama protected yesterday, unless there is a big change in the law or Congress enacts new legislation to override the law that Obama used yesterday, those are off the table.

KIM BROWN: President Obama has the misfortune of the Deep Water Horizon oilrig exploding. Several workers lost their lives, and millions of gallons of crude oil just poured into the Gulf of Mexico. We saw that it decimated the wildlife in that area, the marine life, the wetlands, people who depend on the oceans for their livelihood, such as fishermen and oyster people and shrimpers, they had their method of being able to support their families really decimated, for lack of a better term. So, how much do you think that this catastrophic environmental disaster weighed on his decision to enact these bans before he left office?

EMILY JEFFERS: I think that it probably weighed pretty heavily on his mind. Ever since it happened, it was a huge unmitigated disaster. I think we all, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the footage of just the oil pouring into the ocean and very, very deep environmentalist… it was really difficult to clean up. Even though we haven’t seen a lot of footage of it now, it’s still not… the Gulf has not recovered from Deep Water Horizon, and in the Arctic, if something similar were to occur, the results would be exponentially worse, because of the harsh conditions, because of the distance from any oil spill response team. There are no… it’s not like the Lower 48, where you can drive and have easy access.

We’re not talking about the Gulf of Mexico climate; we’re talking about the Arctic. Winds, high seas, ice. If oil is trapped under ice, how do you clean it up? I don’t think that’s something that President Obama wants to have on his legacy, nor on really the legacy of any future president, or the country. It would be an unmitigated disaster. I think that’s one he wants to avoid.

KIM BROWN: Emily, how would your organization rate President Obama’s environmental legacy?

EMILY JEFFERS: Well, I don’t know if I’m authorized to speak for the organization, but I think that he’s done okay. I think that there are certain things that we wish that he had been stronger on. I think that the Clean Power Plan, and the move to regulate carbon emissions was a good first step, but there were a lot of other climate-related actions he could’ve taken. For example… I mean, I’m very glad that he is taking this step now under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, but I think that… I don’t know, maybe a 7 or an 8 out of 10? He’s done pretty well.

KIM BROWN: All right. Well, we’ve been speaking with Emily Jeffers. She is a staff attorney in the Oceans Program at the Center for Biological Diversity. We’ve been talking about President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau’s joint announcement of bans on new oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and in the northern Atlantic oceans. Emily, we appreciate your time today. Thank you.

EMILY JEFFERS: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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