December 20, 2016
President Barack Obama on Tuesday put the weight of his waning administration behind banning oil and gas drilling off parts of the East Coast, including Virginia. The question immediately became: What will Donald Trump do? Industry groups are counting on him to reverse Obama’s course soon after he takes over the White House in January.
Obama invoked a rarely used provision of a 1953 federal law to declare 31 Atlantic Ocean canyons from New England to Virginia indefinitely off-limits, along with 125 million acres of the Arctic Ocean. The law says that “the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”
The two southernmost canyons to be protected are off Virginia, including the Norfolk Canyon, which begins 70 miles off the Virginia Beach coast. Together, all of the canyons make up about 3.8 million acres and are considered among the ocean’s most diverse ecological “hot spots.”
The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center had been preparing much of the past year to nominate the Norfolk Canyon as a national marine sanctuary. A task force put the nomination on hold, however, after Trump’s election last month, citing uncertainty over how the new administration would receive the initiative.
Obama’s action Tuesday was accompanied by Canada’s placing a moratorium on new leasing in its Arctic waters.
Environmental groups and tourism officials in many East Coast communities generally cheered Obama’s action, though some said they had hoped he’d try to safeguard even more areas. They had been pressing for long-lasting prohibitions because Trump has said he wants to step up offshore exploration, which they fear could bring economically devastating oil spills.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, decried Obama’s action, saying it “not only risks the long-term energy security and energy leadership position of the United States, it violates the letter and spirit of the law.” He argued that more oil and gas development, particularly in the Arctic, is vital to national security.
The president has twice before declared federal waters – off parts of Alaska – indefinitely off-limits to exploration, claiming powers he said were given to him under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Some legal analysts have said that even if Trump declares Obama’s latest decision null and void, the issue likely would be tested in court.
“There’s no such thing as a permanent ban,” said Erik Milito, a policy director at the American Petroleum Institute.
But Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the statute says a president can withdraw waters from the country’s leasing plans and “it doesn’t say you can put it back in.”
The Obama administration’s move to protect more areas of the Atlantic from drilling completes a turnaround. Last year, it included Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia in its 2017-22 offshore oil and gas plan. In March, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management pulled the Atlantic states from the blueprint, citing opposition from coastal communities, the Navy and NASA.
Administration officials still haven’t decided whether to approve applications by six companies for seismic surveys for oil and gas along the East Coast – activities that are regulated in a separate process.
Environmental groups have asked the administration to reject the testing as well. They say it threatens to harm whales and other marine mammals.
A group called the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast has been particularly vocal on the anti-drilling side. Among its members are the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.
Laura Wood Habr, vice president of the Beach association, said she was pleased that Obama recognized the importance of the canyons but wishes he had banned future oil and gas leases for the entire Atlantic coast.
“Water, just like air, has no boundaries,” Habr said.
A spill anywhere along the coast would have wide-ranging effects, she said, including in the canyons over which Obama is seeking to throw a protective cover.
Pat Broom, a board member of the Outer Banks chamber, predicted that the opposition to drilling off North Carolina won’t end under Trump: “There’s definitely interest and energy to continue to push this issue and make it clear that we feel this is something that is not good for our area.”