Vowing that his successor won’t be able to reverse his actions, President Obama on Tuesday used executive authority to permanently ban new offshore drilling in federally owned waters off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic Ocean.
Mr. Obama used authority in a section of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, a 1953 law, to ban the drilling. The law includes a provision that allows a president to put certain waters off-limits to oil and gas production.
The presidential authority was used in conjunction with similar actions by Canada, which also moved to prohibit drilling in its own Arctic waters. The U.S. move will ban drilling in the vast majority of American waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, in addition to areas off the Atlantic coast stretching from New England to Virginia.
“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on Earth,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.”
Mr. Obama said drilling in the areas is simply not economical, though some critics say otherwise.
White House officials also made clear that they believe Mr. Trump, who assumes power Jan. 20, cannot reverse the action. The 1953 law, they said, gives a president authority to ban drilling in areas but contains no provisions giving a president power to reopen them.
“No president has ever acted to reverse an indefinite withdrawal, and we believe there is a strong legal basis that these withdrawals … will go forward and will stand the test of time,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “There is no authority for subsequent presidents to un-withdraw.”
No president has ever tried to reverse his predecessor’s offshore drilling bans, setting up a historic legal case if Mr. Trump chooses to try to reopen the areas.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, left little doubt that the action was carried out with the Trump administration in mind.
“We know that in the Trump administration, there will be a Big Oil bull’s-eye on our coastlines for offshore drilling,” Mr. Markey said. “As President-elect Trump nominates fossil fuel allies to his Cabinet, President Obama has instead put the interests of millions of Americans ahead of those of Big Oil with these permanent protections. We must not allow the Trump administration to open our waters off of New England to dangerous offshore oil and gas drilling.”
Expecting a Trump administration much friendlier to oil and gas interests, environmental activists have been urging the administration to take action before Mr. Trump assumes office. The National Resources Defense Council said Mr. Obama “has an unprecedented opportunity to rack up important environmental gains.”
“And with President-elect Donald Trump — who calls climate change a hoax and plans to dramatically expand fracking, coal mining and oil drilling — taking office in January, these last days are more critical than ever,” the group said.
The American Petroleum Institute is urging Mr. Trump to rescind Mr. Obama’s actions, saying there is no such thing as a permanent ban on drilling. API official Erik Milito said Mr. Obama’s move “ignores congressional intent, our national security and vital good-paying job opportunities for our shipyards, unions and businesses of all types across the country.”
“Our national security depends on our ability to produce oil and natural gas here in the United States,” Mr. Milito said. “This proposal would take us in the wrong direction just as we have become world leader in production and refining of oil and natural gas and in reduction of carbon emissions. Blocking offshore exploration weakens our national security, destroys good-paying jobs and could make energy less affordable for consumers.”
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, called Mr. Obama’s executive action “naive and unprecedented.”
“This is not a moral calling; it’s an abuse of power,” Mr. Bishop said. “Scratch below the facade of pragmatism, and it is nothing more than ideological chest-thumping from the president for the far left.”
Rep. Jeff Duncan, South Carolina Republican and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Mr. Obama’s action “is a vain attempt to salvage a personal legacy for himself.” He said the legal provision is “vague and untested.”
“A permanent ban is clearly not the scope of power provided by law, nor is it in the interest of the United States,” Mr. Duncan said. “However, I am not shocked at his willingness to put his political legacy before his country. Instead of listening to rebuke after rebuke of his policies in successive elections, he would rather act like a king. Governors in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia have all agreed energy exploration off the coast would be a blessing to our states, and yet he ignores the will of the American people.”
Mr. Duncan said there is a “strong likelihood” that Congress or the courts will strike down Mr. Obama’s executive action, “just like his plans for executive amnesty, unconstitutional recess appointments and illegally transferring terrorists [detained at Guantanamo Bay] to U.S. soil.”
By using the 12(a) provision of the 1953 law to ban drilling in U.S. territorial waters, legal challenges are almost certain. But activists say a court case could take years to resolve.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, last week also asked Mr. Obama to ban drilling in the Pacific Ocean off the state’s coast.
“Millions of people around the world will be grateful to President Obama for permanently protecting much of the Arctic and the Atlantic coasts from catastrophic oil exploration and development,” Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols said in a statement.
Lucas Frances of the Arctic Energy Center, a group funded by oil and gas interests, said its research shows that about three-quarters of Native-group respondents in Alaska support offshore energy.
“If reports are true, and taken with last week’s news that sales of Beaufort Sea and North Slope leases generated $18 million, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Obama administration is playing politics with the future of Alaska,” he said.
Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president of the environmental group Oceana, said the move by Mr. Obama would be “a smart business decision, based on science and facts.”
“This decision would help to protect existing lucrative coastal tourism and fishing businesses from offshore drilling, which promises smaller, short-lived returns and threatens coastal livelihoods,” she said. “East Coast communities and businesses that depend on a healthy ocean would finally be able to rest assured that they will be spared from the worst impacts of dirty and dangerous offshore drilling.”