A beluga celebrates. Obama's new Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area encompasses 112,300 square miles, and supports one of the largest seasonal marine mammal migrations in the world, including thousands of bowhead and beluga whales, hundreds of thousands of walruses and ice seals, and millions of migratory birds.  It's also home to over 40 different coastal First Nation tribes.

President Obama has burnished his environmental record announcing this week a permanent ban on offshore drilling in 98 percent of U.S. Arctic Ocean waters. The decision also affects 3.8 million acres of the Atlantic, an area with biologically unique deepwater canyons between Virginia and the Canadian border.  

Back in September, Obama used the Antiquities Act, a law dating back to Republican conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt, to establish the Atlantic’s first large-scale offshore reserve, the 4,900-square-mile “Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument,” where oil drilling had also been proposed.

Rather than using an executive order that could be easily overturned by a President Trump, Obama moved to protect the Arctic Ocean and large parts of the Atlantic under a 1953 Eisenhower era law called the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Lands Act. Because the 1953 statute does not include explicit provisions for reversal, any attempt to rescind it could be tied up in court for years.

And, in a coordinated U.S.-Canadian pre-emptive strike against the anticipated power of an Exxon-Russia oil alliance in the incoming Trump White House, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simultaneously announced a ban on any new drilling in Canada’s Arctic Waters.

Efforts by a Republican Congress to revise Obama’s actions would likely have limited effect. According to Richard Charter of the Ocean Foundation:

“President Richard Nixon used the same [law] to establish a no-drilling preserve off Santa Barbara after touring the oil-covered beaches following the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. And that reserve is still there.”

Charter, an outspoken advocate for offshore drilling bans since the 1980s, told me “There’s no mechanism to undo what President Obama has done. Congress could try and prevent this [Lands Act provision] being used in the future but you can’t change a law retroactively.” He concludes,

“This is probably going to be extremely frustrating to incoming Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke . . . and the rest of the oil-saturated cabinet being assembled.”

But Big Oil thinks otherwise—at least publicly.

“We are hopeful the incoming administration will reverse this decision as the nation continues to need a robust strategy for developing offshore and onshore energy,” says Erik Milito, of the American Petroleum Institute.

In reality, however, even big oil isn’t that interested in new offshore oil leasing.

After spending twenty years and some seven billion dollars, Shell Oil recently gave up on drilling in the U.S. Chukchi Sea “for the foreseeable future.” The company hit a dry hole after several near disasters, including running a giant rig up onto the rocks off Kodiak Island during a winter storm.

The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft has said his agency does not have the resources needed to respond if an oil spill were to occur in the U.S. Arctic ocean north of Alaska. 

And on the East Coast, the Navy has complained that offshore oil-drilling rigs there could pose a problem for National Security by limiting its ability to carry out war-fighting exercises in their Atlantic training range. The present Navy leadership has also committed to reducing its fleet’s dependence on fossil fuels by 50 percent over the next fifteen years, a goal likely to be reversed under the Trump administration.

The reality, of course, is that climate scientists have estimated that 70 percent of known reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left in the ground and under the seabed if the world is to avoid a catastrophic warming of more than two degrees Celsius.  

When President Nixon used the OCS Lands Act to stop drilling in most of Santa Barbara’s waters back in 1969, the issue was energy versus marine and coastal pollution. Today, it’s a product-liability issue. Even if you could drill safely your product, used as directed, would still overheat the atmosphere and acidify the seas.

With more U.S. workers now employed in solar than either oil or coal, the Trump presidency could prove the last roar of the fossil fuel dinosaurs and their lobbyists and campaign donors.    

And President Obama’s legacy, at least in part, will be where they don’t get to drill.

David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His book The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea, is available in paperback.



Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


Activists say no wall can be built that will keep them from standing together for immigration reform.

In this 1963 letter from his Birmingham jail cell Martin Luther King Jr. pushed back against the idea that civil...

From drone strikes against Americans overseas to broad surveillance powers to indefinite detention, Obama certainly...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project