In the Battle for His Legacy, Obama Opens a New Arctic Front On Trump

Obama’s surprise -- and potentially sticky ban -- on offshore drilling is the latest midnight regulation in the land of the midnight sun.


President Barack Obama’s drive to cement his environmental legacy before President-elect Donald Trump takes office has taken on an Arctic twist. On Tuesday, Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, brandishing decades-old legislative authority, indefinitely banned future offshore drilling in the bulk of the American and Canadian Arctic.

The decision, which drew predictable praise from environmental organizations and condemnation from the energy industry and Alaskan lawmakers, marks an about-face of sorts for the administration, which until recently was touting Arctic development. It could presage a months-long bitter legal and legislative battle in Washington, one of many sown by Obama’s last-ditch efforts to lock-in achievements, especially when it comes to the environment.

But this won’t just be a battle over oil companies’ access to potentially rich waters. Proponents of drilling are hoping to paint the battle in terms of national security: They argue that Washington should encourage economic activity like drilling in the not-so-frozen north to guarantee an American foothold in a part of the world that is fast becoming a geopolitical wishbone. Russia, for its part, is ramping up Arctic oil exploration and building a host of new military bases north of the Arctic Circle.

“Removing Arctic lease sales will only further signal a strategic withdrawal from the region,” wrote a pair of former NATO commanders, Joseph Ralston and James Jones, Obama’s first national security adviser, in an op-ed this summer.

With the stroke of a pen, Obama on Tuesday designated over 115 million acres of the Arctic Ocean indefinitely off-limits to future oil and gas leasing. Trudeau, Obama’s temporary liberal sidekick, matched the U.S. announcement with his own pledge to freeze offshore Arctic oil and gas leasing, with a review of Canada’s decision every five years.

Tuesday’s decision puts the entire U.S. Chukchi Sea, to the northwest of Alaska, and much of the Beaufort, to the north, out of bounds for future drilling. The Obama administration opened a small portion of the Chukchi and the Beaufort for oil exploration in the past, but found few takers. Shell spent $7 billion in Arctic projects before finally pulling the plug in September, 2015.

Lawmakers in Alaska, which relies on oil and gas production and which has called for greater development of U.S. Arctic resources, weren’t thrilled by Obama’s maneuver.

“President Obama has once again treated the Arctic like a snow globe, ignoring the desires of the people who live, work, and raise a family there,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair of the Senate Energy Committee. “I cannot wait to work with the next administration to reverse this decision,” she added.

It might be tough, according to legal experts. Obama used a 1953 law that governs offshore leases in the U.S. continental shelf. The law has no provision that allows his successor to undo anything, which environmental groups hope may block Trump from repealing it.

Nonsense, says Christopher Guith, an energy expert with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who called that idea “bogus.”

“There’s no such thing as a permanent withdrawal,” Guith told Foreign Policy. “This is not an executive order, it’s a presidential memorandum,” he said. Trump could simply “issue another presidential memorandum rescinding this withdrawal,” Guith added.

Trump, who loves oil, gas, and coal, has stacked his administration with climate-change skeptics or deniers, and has promised to rescind a raft of Obama’s environmental rules. But it’s not clear when or how he could fight the political battle to reopen the Arctic, especially with oil prices staying low for the second straight year, which discourages industry interest in the area.

Trump’s team “is going to have a lot of priorities when he takes office,” Ralston told FP. “The Arctic is a long way away from Washington.”

Even if Trump prioritizes rescinding the ban on Arctic drilling, environmental groups are hungering for a fight to defend the international agreement. “No president has ever rescinded a previous president’s permanent withdrawal of offshore areas from oil and gas development,” said Friends of the Earth’s Marissa Knodel in a press release issued Tuesday. “If Donald Trump tries to reverse President Obama’s withdrawals, he will find himself in court.”

That’s one reason drilling proponents want to play the national-security card to refocus U.S. attention on the Arctic. Russia, Ralston says, is making major upgrades to its Arctic military facilities, and boosting naval activity there. But he says the United States’ military and coast guard footprint in the Arctic is lacking; the United States has only a fraction of the icebreakers that the Coast Guard says it needs.

Ralston says that drilling proponents will “push national security” front and center, because energy production will naturally draw greater U.S. presence and political interest to the region. That includes improvements — from deep-water ports to Coast Guard stations to more roads and power plants — that could underpin greater economic activity or a more robust military presence.

Until a few months ago, Obama administration officials took a similar tack. “Responsibly developing Arctic oil and gas resources aligns with United States’ ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to developing domestic energy resources,” Amy Pope, Obama’s deputy homeland security advisor, said at an Atlantic Council conference in October.

Obama’s Special Representative for the Arctic, Robert Papp, who also spoke at the conference, said Arctic energy development and national security went hand-in-hand. “We need to have the infrastructure; whether you’re talking about energy security or any other form of security in the Arctic, you need to have the infrastructure in place,” Papp, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said. He said that encouraging Arctic development is important, “because we are going to be dependent upon petroleum and gas for a long time.”

Obama’s change of course, which wrong footed many of his own administration officials, could be little more than an effort at Yuletide cheer for greens, who are trying to batten down the hatches before Trump takes office.

“It just has the look of being a political consolation prize for Democrats and environmental groups,” said retired Adm. David Titley, an Arctic expert now at Pennsylvania State University. “What we’ve done is outsourced Arctic energy production risks, ironically, to places that have fewer environmental regulations, like Russia.”

In Alaska, local leaders feel Washington ran roughshod over their concerns, unlike leaders in Ottawa.

“Canada in recent years has given development decisions in the north to local governments,” Mead Treadwell, former Alaska lieutenant governor told FP. “They believe this is their decision, not a national decision.” That wasn’t the case in Alaska, he says (though some Alaskan conservation groups were, in fact, quick to praise the decision).

It’s hard to understand how you could have eight years of hearings on the Keystone Pipeline and yet do this in the dark of the night with the stroke of a pen,” Treadwell said. “It’s the worst Christmas present ever.”

Photo credit: Greg A. Syverson/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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