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Obama Blocks Offshore Drilling In Atlantic, Arctic Areas


A big announcement from the White House yesterday could help shape President Obama's environmental legacy. The president placed a ban on oil and gas drilling in nearly all the country's Arctic waters and large sections of the Atlantic Ocean. The oil industry and its allies in Congress are hoping President-elect Trump reverses this when he takes over. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The Atlantic section President Obama placed off limits to drillers covers nearly 6,000 square miles from off-shore Massachusetts down to Virginia. But for environmentalists, the huge win was the Arctic.

NIEL LAWRENCE: This is pretty big. This is bigger than I think we let ourselves hope for.

BRADY: Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council says President Obama relied on one provision in a decades-old law that presidents from both parties have used in the past to protect stretches of ocean. But he says Obama broke new ground with this far-reaching designation.

LAWRENCE: This is the first time that a president has ever taken, essentially, an entire sea off limits. That was really in the industry's crosshairs.

BRADY: Alaska's Republican congressional delegation issued a statement saying members were stunned by the extent of the drilling ban. They said extracting the oil and gas contained in the Arctic could employ thousands of people every year. President Obama cited several issues to justify his decision, concern for climate change, protecting sensitive ecosystems, habitat for endangered species and the potential for oil spills.

That would be difficult and expensive to clean up in the Arctic's harsh environment. This is not like other executive actions that can easily be overturned. A senior White House official says the president is on solid legal ground in making this ban indefinite. Andy Radford with the American Petroleum Institute disagrees.

ANDY RADFORD: So we think that there's no basis to say that this is permanent.

BRADY: Radford wants President-elect Trump to reverse Obama's order after Trump is sworn in next month. The president-elect's office did not respond to NPR's request for a comment. But during the campaign, Trump did promise to encourage more drilling. Radford says there is some potential precedent for reversing Obama's order. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also placed areas off limits for leasing to drillers.

RADFORD: And then the second President Bush undid all that in 2008 and added areas back into the areas that can be leased. So we think it's not a permanent thing. It's just a tool that the president has to eliminate certain areas, which - it certainly can be undone by a future president.

BRADY: Some circumstances in that case were different, though. The White House and environmental groups say the 1953 law is clear. It gives the president the right to designate areas off limits to drilling. But the law says nothing about removing that kind of ban. In that legal disagreement, there's the start of a court battle. So even if President Obama's latest order doesn't stop drilling permanently, it could delay it.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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