People, planet, and the path ahead
In this 2015 photo, the oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Elliott Bay in Seattle. Royal Dutch Shell was outfitting the rig for Arctic oil exploration. President Barack Obama has ordered wide swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans placed permanently off-limits for oil drilling, in an 11th-hour push for environmental protection before he leaves office.
Elaine Thompson/AP/File | Caption

Obama limits offshore oil, as 'Keep it in the Ground' idea rises

A shift in thought

The White House puts vast areas off Atlantic and Arctic coasts off limits to drilling. The move may reflect how a 'Keep it in the Ground' movement has gained traction within the Democratic Party.

President Obama permanently blocked oil and gas drilling in portions of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans that haven’t yet been leased to energy companies for production, a move that aims to secure some of Mr. Obama’s environmental legacy and will likely ignite a legal fight.

The move also may reveal how much the idea known as “Keep it in the Ground” – a movement to end reliance on fossil fuels – has gained traction on the political left. The idea has percolated upward through grass-roots activism, and now a president who rode into office with an “all of the above” slogan on energy sources is riding out with some of the most sweeping anti-drilling actions ever taken by a US president.

The move Tuesday, made in conjunction with Canada, aims to serve as a buffer against the incoming Trump administration. President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to revive coal, oil, and natural gas jobs, including through opening public lands and oceans to more drilling and mining.

Whereas many of Obama’s environmental and climate change policies are vulnerable to reversal, since he initiated them through executive action and regulation, White House officials and environmental activists argue the oceans move is different.

Obama is using a 1953 law that enables the president to withdraw lands on the outer continental shelf from development, and since Congress didn’t include any reversal option, they argue Mr. Trump can’t scuttle it.

Obama hasn’t made “Keep it in the Ground” his formal policy, but his move Tuesday is in sync with the tenor of that environmental campaign. Environmental advocates argue nations must leave all oil, natural gas, coal and other greenhouse gas-emitting fuels in the ground to avert climate change. The Obama administration has also made climate change a major priority, from leadership on the worldwide Paris Agreement in 2015 to formulating carbon emissions limits for power plants using Environmental Protection Agency regulatory powers.

Overall, though, environmental groups contend it’s been easier for US politicians and the Obama administration to embrace policies that reject fossil fuels because renewable energy prices have plummeted. At the same time, climate science has more clearly shown how efforts to crunch emissions are falling short of what’s needed to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, a goal countries set through the Paris deal.

“If that means that the so-called Keep it in the Ground movement has been mainstreamed, then yes,” said Franz Matzner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Beyond Oil Initiative.

“But I think it’s far more fundamental than that,” he said. “A fundamental change has taken place.... The problem and how severe it is is not an abstraction, and neither is the recognition that we have a choice.”

'Robust debate' over party platform 

It’s clear that elements of the Keep it in the Ground philosophy have earned growing political legitimacy within the Democratic Party. The progressive wing tussled with more moderate elements over how much the party’s 2016 platform should incorporate of that movement, and even helped to push eventual presidential nominee Hillary Clinton further to the left on energy and climate matters.

“I think you saw a lot of robust debate around the Democratic platform on Keep it in the Ground language or pursuing policy to stop fossil fuel development,” said Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “I don’t think you could call Keep it in The Ground the de facto policy of the Democratic party. But I think what you’re going to see [from Democrats] with the Trump administration coming into office … is really uniting and coming together to defend our public areas from that onslaught.”

But not everyone with ties to the Democratic Party agrees a major shift has occurred within the party. Keep it in the Ground isn't a "blanket policy" to describe the party's environmental platform, even if Democrats appear to be heading in that direction, said Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy with left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

The ocean decision, Mr. Conathan said, merely weighed the costs and benefits of allowing fossil fuel exploration against the effect it would have on ecosystems. Any attempt to read the isolated incident as a shift toward an overarching policy stance is a stretch, he said.

Not a blanket policy for Dems

"Oil is still a necessary part of the energy mix and it will be for some time going forward, and it’s not going to disappear overnight," he said. "That means that a blanket Keep it in the Ground policy is a very difficult thing to employ at this point in time.”

Indeed, Obama didn’t go as far as environmentalists had hoped. In the Beaufort Sea, 2.8 million acres of nearshore waters will remain open for drilling, and unleased parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean weren’t considered.

The decision aims to preserve 31 underwater canyons across 3.8 million acres stretching from New England to the Chesapeake Bay. In the Arctic, parts of which Canada also banned oil and gas drilling, senior administration officials said oil and gas drilling threatened food systems upon which native Alaskan tribes rely. They noted there was a greater than 75 percent chance of an oil spill in the region and that “our ability to clean up a spill is inadequate.”

The backdrop of policies that block drilling could spell trouble for some moderate Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018 in states won by Trump. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, all of whom must defend their seats in two years, hail from fossil fuel energy-producing states that Trump carried in November.

The Democratic Party has "unquestionably" moved closer to the ideals of the Keep it in the Ground movement, said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who advised Sen. Bernie Sanders (a Vermont independent) in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr. Longabaugh said this doesn't have to endanger moderate Democrats' position in the party, but he said environmental groups and Democrats need to do a better job of explaining how communities that depend on a fossil fuel-based economy can transition to one that relies more heavily on renewable energy.

Ms. Knodel, referring to that challenge, said it will require some real searching and policy proposals tailored to specific communities.

“What is going to work for Alaska is going to be different than what’s going to work for the Gulf of Mexico is going to be different than what’s going to work for Appalachian communities," she said.

Pro-drilling views

Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for taking federal onshore and offshore off the table for fossil fuel development. The White House said the Obama administration has removed 125 million acres of the Arctic from energy development since Mr. Obama took office. The Arctic is estimated to contain 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The administration officials said the White House was removing the Arctic areas in part because oil prices are too low to justify new investment in the region, and that there is “no viable timeline” to extract oil and gas in a “responsible” manner. The official noted no US Arctic production exists on the more than 200,000 acres companies have leased and that oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell have backed away from immediate drilling plans, citing low prices.

The oil-and-gas industry, Republicans, and oil-state Democrats, however, would prefer the US keep options open in case the economic picture changes and makes drilling more likely. They note that Russia already is developing its Arctic resources and worry that the US is at a disadvantage.

"Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs, and could make energy less affordable for consumers,” Erik Milito, director of upstream operations with the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement released Tuesday. “Fortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent ban, and we look forward to working with the new administration on fulfilling the will of American voters on energy production.”

Tuesday's action differs from the five-year offshore drilling plan that the Obama administration released last month. While that plan kept both the Atlantic and Arctic oceans off limits to drillers, Mr. Trump could craft a new one.

By contrast, short of legislative action, Tuesday’s decision almost undoubtedly will lead to the courts – and could well stay there for Trump’s entire first term.

"We may get to the point where we’re in a new administration four years down the line before some of these issues get resolved," said Kristen Monsell, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.