President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Friday directing the Interior Department, specifically Secretary Ryan Zinke, to review a five-year plan in which President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans. The order also directs the Commerce Department to review all designations and expansions of national marine sanctuaries within 180 days as well as all designations and expansions under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
Environmental groups are aghast at the implications that this repeal could have on fragile marine ecosystems. "With this executive order, the Trump administration is threatening the 1,100 miles of California coastline that the citizens of California own, and that we have fought to protect from special interests," said Tom Steyer, president of NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy group. "Going back to a dirty energy model is a huge mistake, and that mistake becomes more obvious every day."
Yet they are not losing hope. "No matter how much money it spends or how many lobbyists it places inside the Trump administration, 'Big Oil' can never nor will never drown out the voices of millions of Americans across the country who spoke out against dangerous offshore drilling," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
Many coastal communities have already passed resolutions against offshore drilling, partly for environmental protection reasons, but also because of how drilling would affect tourism and restaurant industries.
Although Trump remarked that his order "reverses the previous administration's Arctic leasing ban," there is some doubt as to whether the president actually has this power, as former President Obama’s use of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act made his designation a permanent ban. This is critical because the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act does not explicitly allow a president to get rid of a designation; an aspect that the Obama administration banked on when using it.
"It's uncharted territory for a president to attempt to completely lift a moratorium like the one President Obama instituted," says Jayni Hein, policy director at New York University's Institute for Policy Integrity. Past presidents have tweaked the size of previously designated protected areas, she says, but a full-on repeal is unprecedented and would likely end up in the courts.
The current low price of oil (sitting at about $50 a barrel) may also affect how the executive order actually comes into reality. Offshore drilling is pricy especially in remote places, and exploration for oil sites isn’t cheap either. Following NPR, when Zinke was asked if the administration had been approached by any companies interested in drilling in the Arctic, he said, "No."
For the sake of crucial marine environments, we can only hope it stays that way.