President Obama blocks Arctic oil drilling

The ban protects hundreds of millions of acres across the Arctic and Atlantic oceans
obama oil drilling President Obama isn't finished writing laws just yet. (© Palinchak | Dreamstime.com)


U.S. President Barack Obama has less than a month to go in his presidency. But that doesn't mean that he is quite finished passing laws. This past Tuesday, he banned offshore oil drilling in large parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also joined in, promising to back up Obama's plan.

Offshore drilling is when a giant platform called a rig is used to drill in the ocean floor for buried deposits of oil. And it's the source of a lot of controversy. Those who support offshore drilling believe that it will decrease North America's reliance on foreign oil (from other countries), reduce gas prices, and have little negative impact on the environment. Others argue that offshore drilling will have devastating effects on the environment.

Why now?

Back in June, around 400 scientists concerned about the environment sent a letter to President Obama asking him to protect Arctic waters from being "leased out" for offshore drilling. (Because the country owns these waters, oil companies need to get a lease, or permission, to be able to drill in these areas.) So Obama's move to pass this law is at least partly in response to this pressure.

But there is another reason why the president is making this move. If he doesn't, president-elect Trump's new administration will almost certainly begin drilling there.

A big change in policy

Activists have been protesting offshore drilling in the Arctic for years. This banner is from 2013. (Getty Embed)

Obama and Trump disagree on lots of things, but climate change and energy is one of the biggest of those issues. Obama has tried to increase America's sources of renewable and clean energy production, such as solar and wind power. He has also spoken out often about the threat of climate change.

On the other hand, Trump sees things very differently. His views on climate change range from calling it a "hoax" to it being real to it being something that "nobody really knows" about. But he has repeatedly said that he believes that the U.S. needs to begin drilling offshore more. Trump has already appointed many people to his cabinet (or top government positions) who work or have worked in the oil industry. And he also has stated that he would work to reverse many of the protections and limits that Obama placed on fossil fuel industries such as oil and coal.

Which brings us to the question: What will stop Trump from reversing this ban as soon as he takes office on January 20th?

Using an old law for support

Offshore rigs like this one will be difficult to build in the Arctic in the future, unless Trump can reverse Obama's new law. (Getty Embed)

To protect his ban against Trump's administration, Obama has used a very old law from 1953. It's called the Outer Continental Shelf Act. We won't quote the whole law to you (you're welcome!), but the important part is this: "the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf." In other words, the president can make certain areas permanently unavailable to a drilling lease. In total, 115 million acres in the Arctic Ocean were protected by Obama (2.8 million acres are still available).

For now, environmental activists are grateful for Obama's actions. Will it be enough to survive Trump's coming presidency? We'll have to wait to find out.


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