Obama’s last chance to weigh in on Arctic drilling has industry worried, enviros hopeful

Shell's Noble Discoverer drill rig leaving Unalaska Monday afternoon. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB - Unalaska)
Shell’s Noble Discoverer drill rig leaving Unalaska Oct. 12, 2015. (Photo by John Ryan, KUCB – Unalaska)

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s upset election victory, President Barack Obama still has two months left in office to close out policy decisions and try to cement any final pieces of his legacy.

One open question is offshore oil and gas leasing.

Environmentalists want President Obama to place the Arctic off limits to offshore drilling, in part to combat climate change.

The oil industry is lobbying to keep it open. A decision is expected any day.

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And depending what Obama does, it might not be so easy for a Trump administration to override it.

If you were in Washington, D.C., this fall, you might have seen several ads promoting offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska — including one urging the audience to “tell Washington to support Native Alaskans. Include the Arctic in the next offshore leasing program.”

The ads were part of a campaign by a coalition of industry and labor groups, including the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Arctic Inupiat Offshore.

It’s one side of a fight that’s been happening largely out of sight of Alaskans as industry groups and environmentalists both target administration officials and lawmakers in D.C. in the final days of the Obama presidency.

At stake is the Department of the Interior’s five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing, which will determine what areas are made available to industry through 2022.

Lucas Frances works for the Arctic Energy Center which has been pushing to keep the Arctic open for drilling.

“It’s not final until it’s out there in the public record, in the Federal Register,” Frances said. “We want them to understand what’s at stake for Alaskans and what’s at stake for domestic energy production.”

At the moment, companies aren’t exactly clamoring to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

The drop in oil prices have made the expensive and risky region less appealing, and ever since Shell announced it was abandoning its high-profile exploration effort last year, many companies have given up the leases they already held.

But Frances said just because there isn’t interest now doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future. Once the leases are removed, he said, it’s harder to put them back in — and companies are less likely to include the Arctic in their plans.

“The opportunity to invest needs to happen now, for development to happen in 10, 15, 20 or even 25 years from now,” Frances said. “If you don’t have the opportunity to even pursue exploration, if you don’t have a lease sale, you do not have those investments.”

If the Obama administration does remove the lease sales, a Trump administration could always rewrite the plan. That would require going through much of the public process all over again, however.

“And that does take time,” Frances said. “So you’re looking at potentially a year and a half to two years to make any revisions to a new plan.”

The incoming administration might decide it’s not worth the time.

National environmental groups are counting on that. They’ve been pushing the administration to remove the Arctic from the five-year plan. They already scored one victory this year when the Interior Department decided not to offer offshore leases in the Atlantic Ocean, citing local opposition.

“It makes no sense at all to do offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean,” Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

Lawrence said Shell’s experience proved Arctic drilling costs too much and comes with too many unknowns. He argued that companies haven’t proved they can prevent or clean up a major oil spill in the region. And he said it would be years before companies could produce oil from the region.

“By the time that oil flows, we’re going to have to be in a world that is using far less fossil fuel,” Lawrence said. “Over time, we are either going to ramp way down on fossil fuels, or we are going to cook the planet.”

Lawrence and others would like to see the Obama administration go even further, permanently removing the Arctic from offshore oil and gas leasing under a special provision of law.

Emily Yehle is a reporter for E&E News in Washington, D.C., She said that might be even harder for a Trump administration to undo.

“The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act does not specifically give any future presidents the authority to end that withdrawal,” Yehle said. “So they think that it would be permanent.”

The offshore leasing plan is expected to be released this week.