Obama’s move to stop arctic drilling forever could thwart Donald Trump’s oil ambitions

Still pristine.
Still pristine.
Image: Reuters/Kathryn Hansen/NASA
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In his last days in office Barack Obama, the outgoing president of the United States, is trying to block his successor, Donald Trump, from overturning attempts to protect the climate.

His latest safeguard is a ban on drilling for oil in the US Arctic, announced alongside Canada on Tuesday. The joint statement, released by the White House and the Canadian government, said:

[The] United States is designating the vast majority of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off limits to offshore oil and gas leasing, and Canada will designate all Arctic Canadian waters as indefinitely off limits to future offshore Arctic oil and gas licensing, to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.

The timing of the announcement is crucial.

Obama will leave office in less than a month, and cede his position to a man who has promised to roll back most of Obama’s climate-protection provisions. These include the domestic Clean Power Plan, which sought to limit emissions from power stations (but has been blocked by the US Supreme Court since February 2016), and the COP21 accord for curbing global temperature rises, agreed in a year ago in Paris.

Trump said during his campaign that he would pull the US out of bilateral agreements and cancel domestic climate policies. Since his election, his public stance on energy and climate change has been less hardline. But his cabinet nominations point to a future in which fossil fuels are given primacy and climate science is under question. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of State, is the CEO of oil major ExxonMobil, and was behind the company’s own Arctic oil drilling—though in Russian rather than American waters. Trump’s would-be energy secretary has campaigned for more fossil-fuel extraction rights. And the man he wants to lead the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate-change denier.

Trump has also been an enthusiastic supporter of fossil-fuel extraction, including oil and even coal—the most polluting form of energy. He has said he wants to ramp up extraction to the point where the US is energy self-sufficient.

Obama’s ban on Arctic drilling depends on a clause in a 1953 law that allows presidents to place an indefinite moratorium on drilling in chunks of offshore waters. In theory, the law doesn’t allow a future president to reverse the ban. But it’s never yet been tested in court, Bloomberg reports, and in any case, the Republican-dominated Congress might pass a new law to overturn it.