Before Leaving, Mr. President, Keep OCS Oil + Gas In The Ground!

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The Obama administration will soon announce its five-year plan for managing offshore oil and gas (OCS oil + gas leasing)  from 2017 to 2022. Because of potential impacts on tourism and the environment, in its March draft version of the plan the President already scrapped an auction of Atlantic drilling rights in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Grist characterized the excision as a reversal on the administration’s earlier (2015) plan to open the Atlantic to offshore development.

Offshore oil drilling rig ( via pinterest)The President is reportedly also considering limiting the two proposed lease sales in the US Arctic (Beaufort and Chukchi Seas) as well. The Atlantic and Arctic offshore areas have been under consideration for drilling since the 1980s.

Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is on board for encouraging presidential action:

“The last big thing this administration can do is take off the table the places where the government is not in the oil business, where the communities are not reliant on it, where the infrastructure isn’t in place and where the oil couldn’t come for 25 or 30 years.”

“If environmental and energy interests agree on one thing, it’s this: Donald Trump in the White House, armed with a Republican Congress, means the climate policies developed during President Obama’s two terms are on the line,” says Zack Colman for the Christian Science Monitor.

Trump’s 100-day plan calls for lifting restrictions on “job-producing American energy reserves” and cancelling “billions in payments to UN climate change programs.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R, Wisconsin) has made similar promises, such as ensuring “relief” for laid-off coal workers and others affected by the fossil fuel industry decline.

Yet Colman notes that in practice, “Republican control of the Senate is narrow enough that Trump and congressional Republicans have checks on their power.” Also, “Democrats are gearing up for a fight against Trump.” Here are some of the key issues in play:

  • Clean Power Plan
  • Paris Agreement
  • Federal lands limits
  • Regulations
  • Pipeline plans
  • Clean energy funding

The mechanism environmental leaders have recently discussed for the President’s use is provision 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the key 1953 law governing drilling beyond the 3-mile limit of state waters. This legislation has previously been used to preserve coral reefs and walrus feeding grounds. It allows a president “from time to time, [to] withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer continental shelf.” In the current controversy, it could protect other fragile areas such as the US Arctic.

The international community of scientists has said that more than 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground in order to limit global warming to below 2°C. In ratifying the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the US has promised to adhere to the 80% standard.

Ironically, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently used a calculation that the US and the world will not act to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change as the basis for a startling conclusion that under continuing environmentally damaging demand for oil and gas, producing the resources closer to home would cut emissions slightly.

Billionaire conservationist Tom Steyer, the founder and former senior partner of Farallon Capital Management LLC and head of the NextGen Climate Action political advocacy group, backed the President’s potential limitation plan on Tuesday, saying:

“The Trump administration has the potential to do serious damage to our climate, but in the last few months of his presidency, President Obama can take concrete steps to secure his environmental legacy. We will continue to support bold action by President Obama to fight for our families, and we will keep pushing back against Trump’s dark vision and dangerous plans for our country.” Executive Director May Boeve agrees:

“We’re calling on President Obama to secure his climate legacy and cancel all oil and gas leases in our public waters…. With President-elect Trump threatening to drag us backwards on climate, it’s critical that President Obama take us another leap forward.

Scientists are very clear that the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is to keep fossil fuels in the ground, or in this case, under the ocean floor….

Millions of people have sent petitions, marched in the streets, and gone to jail to urge President Obama to live up to his promise of bold climate action. Now he’s running out of time and the stakes are higher than ever. No matter what Trump plans to do, it’s important that our current President send the American people the right signal: we must transition to an 100% renewable energy economy to protect our people and planet.”

Bloomberg reporters point out some pluses and minuses of the OCS oil + gas legal argument.

“A Trump administration could try to alter the five-year plan, but it would take several years of rule making. Invoking the 12 (a) provision would be more permanent without Congressional revocation of the authority…. Some opposed to the move warn the idea is especially treacherous now, because it could goad Republicans in Congress into repealing the 12(a) law so it can’t be used to protect environmentally sensitive areas in the future.”

In an earlier working paper, the Stockholm Environment Institute calculated that ending oil and gas leasing on both federal lands and waters would keep 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere between now and 2040.

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