Trump Could Reverse Obama’s Offshore Energy Ban with a Stroke of a Pen

Dec 21, 2016 - 4:15pm

Senior Editor, Digital Content


An oil platform off the coast of Port Fourchon, LA.
An oil platform off the coast of Port Fourchon, LA. Photo credit: Derick E. Hingle/Bloomberg.

Just before Christmas, President Barack Obama went all Grinch on American offshore energy development.

On his way out of office, he gave a hollow and solely symbolic gift to “keep it in the ground,” anti-energy zealots by blocking offshore oil and natural gas development off the Arctic and Atlantic coasts:

Obama used a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia. In addition to a five-year moratorium already in place in the Atlantic, removing the canyons from drilling puts much of the eastern seaboard off limits to oil exploration even if companies develop plans to operate around them.

The president placating environmental extremists didn’t sit well with energy advocates, like Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy:

This administration’s seeming focus on appeasing special interests at the expense of America’s energy security at this late date is inexcusable. This 11th hour decision to attempt to permanently withdraw areas of the Arctic and Atlantic coasts from ever being considered for offshore exploration is the latest example of their anti-growth agenda that places extreme fringe interests over America’s best interest.

Congress did not intend for the president to be able to exploit a rarely used, 24-word provision to make entire seas off-limits from energy production.

But before energy opponents pop the bubbly in celebration, just as President Obama locked up these areas to development, President-elect Donald Trump could unlock them [subscription required] once he takes office [emphasis mine]:

Christopher Guith at the U.S. Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy argues that Trump can rescind the decree with the stroke of a pen. That would likely prompt a lawsuit from environmental groups, with the battle playing out in courts.

Guith argues that if Obama had really wanted to keep rigs out of these areas, he should have cited the Antiquities Act in his decision. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, easily reversed an earlier decision by his own father to temporarily restrict offshore oil and gas activity under the 1953 act, Guith notes.

Industry could issue a challenge against the Obama administration's move, but by the time it reached the courts, the Trump administration would be in office and in the position to defend Obama's decree, which it wouldn't. Rather than prompt that delay, industry groups appear for now to be content to wait for Trump to assume office to see if he'll repeat Bush's move and repeal Obama's declaration.

"There is the very real likelihood of a legal challenge that would ultimately fall on the Trump administration," Guith argued. "But probably the easiest part of all of this is that, in spite of all the hand-waving, all it takes is another presidential memorandum where President Trump would say, 'I am reversing the withdrawal,' and it's done."

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has given generously to “Keep it in the ground” fanatics in 2016:


On his way out the door, President Obama, who once touted an all-of-the-above energy strategy, continues to abandon the energy abundance that powers our country.

Let's hope for better in 2017.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.