President Obama has a chance to significantly tie the hands of his successor and his or her energy policy with the upcoming five-year plan for offshore drilling leases.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), part of the Interior Department, is likely in January or February to move forward on setting a schedule for lease sales for offshore oil and natural gas drilling rights, and to put the finishing touches on it later in the year.
The program will cover 2017 to 2022, and only lease sales scheduled in the plan can take place.
The most contentious provisions of the plan, whose first draft was released in early 2015, are the proposals to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, which has offshore drilling that has produced oil or gas, and to sell more drilling rights in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska.
Given the significant resource potential and the possible environmental and climate impacts of drilling, along with the long time period the plan covers, Obama’s under great pressure from greens and industry to get the program right.
“We’re looking at the upcoming five-year program as a really great opportunity for President Obama to deliver on his pledge to make climate change part of his legacy,” said Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
“Coming out of the Paris climate negotiations with these emissions targets that we now have to meet, it’s clear that he’s done a lot in terms of energy efficiency and reducing emissions from coal plants, but that’s not going to be enough to meet those targets.”
Friends of the Earth and its environmental allies are tying BOEM’s leasing plan into their “keep it in the ground” initiative, which advocates for a significant reduction in the production of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal.
The groups and their allies in Congress, like presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), think that the best place to start cutting off fossil fuel supplies is on federal land and waters, which are the easiest to control through policy.
“Scientists keep saying that Arctic oil in particular needs to be kept in the ground if we’re going to stay below 2 and even 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Knodel said, referring to international goals for limiting global warming. “We shouldn’t even be looking into exploring or developing oil in that area.”
Obama gave a small nod to the “keep it in the ground” crowd when he rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“Ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he said.
Oceana, a water-focused environmental group, has been working since early 2014 to cut down on future offshore lease sales, with a focus on the Atlantic.
“If the Obama administration and the Department of the Interior are sincere in listening to the public and their constituencies, one would expect that it wouldn’t be in the next plan,” said Claire Douglass, an Oceana campaign director, adding that she’s optimistic that Obama will cut back on the lease plan for the Atlantic, which envisions a single lease sale that could include areas from Virginia to Georgia.
With Oceana’s help, hundreds of coastal residents and businesses have expressed opposition to the plan, with objections related to the possibility of a catastrophic spill, the harm to wildlife and the infrastructure it would require on shore.
They’ve notched some significant wins, with politicians like Sen. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Virginia Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and South Carolina Lieutenant Gov. Henry McMaster ® coming out against drilling off their shores.
The movement picked up another big supporter in recent days when Hillary Clinton, frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, told a South Carolina radio station that she is “very skeptical” of Atlantic drilling. She’d previously expressed skepticism toward Arctic drilling as well.
But the governors of the states at issue all support drilling, something that Obama administration officials have said weighs heavily on their decisions.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) is optimistic that Obama will keep listening to the governors, as well as the oil industry.
“There’s strong bipartisan support in the coast states,” said Erik Milito, upstream director at API. “From a policymaker and a public support standpoint it makes a lot of sense.”
Beyond that, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act pushes the Interior Department toward opening more waters for drilling and to give a lot of credit to what the states want.
It also concerns Milito that the administration’s actions could restrict drilling through 2022, but he said there’s precedent for a future administration re-writing the drilling plan and opening up more leases.
“Whichever administration gets in there, they should think hard about their statutory obligation to make these offshore areas available and maybe adding areas,” he said.
Michael Livermore, an environmental law professor at the University of Virginia, said changing the drilling plan will be hard for a future president, but far from impossible.
“If there is a leasing area that is not included in the leasing program … then no lease sales can be offered there, even by the next administration,” he said.
“But the administration could decide to initiate a new planning process, and through that planning process, open up new leasing areas.”
President George W. Bush proposed a similar move at one time to increase leases and change the schedule for lease plans to be rewritten, but did not move forward to make it final.
Livermore said all eyes are on the Atlantic Ocean for when Obama puts out the schedule.
“The Atlantic is a huge question. There hasn’t been drilling in the Atlantic. It’s near a huge commercial area, population centers, a very environmentally important region,” said Livermore.
But it’s possible that officials will put Atlantic drilling into the plan with restrictions.
“The administration could have some of the areas potentially subject to leasing, but with additional requirements or additional analysis being undertaken,” he said.