President Donald Trump’s executive order seeking to find new ocean expanses in the Atlantic and the Arctic for offshore drilling isn’t likely to reach its goals anytime soon, but instead will kick off a yearslong review and legal battle.
Trump signed the order Friday aimed at dismantling a key part of former President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy.
“This executive order starts the process of opening offshore areas to job-creating energy exploration,” he said. “It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban and directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to allow responsible development of off-shore areas that will bring revenue to our treasury and jobs to our workers.”
Despite Trump’s assertion that the nation needs to wean itself of foreign oil, U.S. oil imports have declined in recent years as domestic production boomed amid improved drilling techniques opening up once unreachable areas.
And environmental law and policy experts questioned Trump’s authority to reverse Obama’s withdrawal of certain areas in the Arctic or Atlantic to drilling, a question likely to be decided in the courts.
“It’s not quite as simple as the president signs something and it undoes the past,” said Sean Hecht, a University of California, Los Angeles environmental law professor.
For instance, Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to protect Arctic areas from oil drilling late last year, a move Trump’s order seeks to undo. At the time, Obama administration lawyers said they were confident that move would be upheld in court.
Legal experts say the law has never been used by a president to remove protections, just to create them.
Trump’s order also directed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to conduct a review of marine monuments and sanctuaries designated this past decade. Obama issued monument proclamations under the Antiquities Act, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Atlantic, which protected that swath of sea from drilling.
Legal scholars said Trump would enter uncharted waters if he seeks to undo a national monument proclamation in an effort to remove environmental protections.
Under Trump’s order, Interior Secretary Zinke will start to review the government’s plan that dictates which federal locations are open to offshore drilling, known as the 5-year plan.
The administration can redo the 5-year-plan, but it’s a long process. Zinke said the leases scheduled under the existing plan would remain in effect during the review, which he estimated would take years before any new leases are possible.
Still, Pam Giblin, an Austin, Texas-based environmental attorney who represents energy companies said Trump’s order is welcome to her clients despite the limitations they see.
“Every one of these orders is primarily aspirational. But it is starting to change the lens through which government is talking about fossil fuels,” she said.
The new 5-year plan could indeed open new areas of oil and gas exploration in waters off Virginia, Georgia and North and South Carolina, where drilling has been blocked for decades. Many lawmakers in those states support offshore drilling, and Alaska’s governor and its Washington delegation all supported the order.
But the plan faces opposition from the fishing industry, tourism groups and even the U.S. military, which has said Atlantic offshore drilling could hurt military maneuvers and interfere with missile tests needed to help protect the East Coast.
More than 120 coastal communities from New Jersey to Florida have passed resolutions opposing any Atlantic drilling.
“Allowing offshore drilling is a forever decision that will forever change our way of life for the worse,” said Frank Knapp, president of Columbia, South Carolina-based Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast.
Environmental groups are preparing for the fight to come, saying that opening up vast areas to drilling harms whales, walruses and other wildlife and exacerbates global warming.
“We will go to court to enforce the law and ensure President Obama’s protections remain in place,” Trip Van Noppen, president of the environmental legal organization Earthjustice, said in a statement.