Alaska’s senators this week introduced legislation that would undo the Obama administration’s indefinite ban on offshore drilling in a large portion of the Arctic Ocean, opening a politically difficult but legally effective way to restart oil and gas lease sales.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and co-sponsored by fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, would require the Department of the Interior to hold at least three lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet during each five-year planning period. The Obama administration did not include any lease sales for the Arctic in its 2017-2022 plan, and then issued a controversial indefinite ban that environmentalists hope remains in place permanently.
The congressional measure may represent a two-pronged approach to undoing Obama’s ban, as supporters of drilling look to the executive branch for action. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sullivan said in a statement they “believe the Trump administration has all the authority it needs to revoke” the ban, but that they introduced the bill “to set a marker that reflects the views of the vast majority of Alaskans.”
Environmentalists argue the ban can’t be undone, saying the 1953 law enabling the ban doesn’t explicitly say it can be revoked. Supporters of drilling have noted that the law doesn’t explicitly block future presidents from undoing a ban, though no president has ever attempted to do so.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the National Ocean Industries Association this week that his agency is “reviewing our offshore policies and regulations” as part of Trump’s executive order on energy issues from March, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email Friday.
On Thursday, Bloomberg News cited unnamed sources who said Zinke told attendees at the National Ocean Industries Association conference that the White House is preparing an executive order on offshore drilling that would end the ban.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a phone interview Friday that environmentalists will sue if the executive branch attempts to undo ban. But he said environmentalists would be out of legal options if Congress passes the bill.
Passing the bill “would allow ‘big oil’ to go into those pristine waters,” Taurel said. “But we think if Trump does it, he doesn’t have the authority to undo the permanent withdrawal.”
The measure may have an uphill battle reaching the 60 votes necessary to advance to a final vote in the Senate, Taurel said. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and fewer than the necessary eight Democrats have typically sided with the GOP on issues relating to fossil fuel production. An executive order would be simpler politically but would attract a lawsuit, Taurel said.
Former President Barack Obama’s drilling ban covers 115 million acres in the Arctic Ocean, which his administration deemed a sensitive ecological area, and 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic Ocean, where the Pentagon objected to drilling activity near military installations.
Murkowski’s bill only addresses Arctic drilling, but the legal battle over an order by the executive branch could include both areas.