WASHINGTON — Surrounded by members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, President Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive order that directs the Interior Department to rethink some of President Barack Obama’s regulations and decrees that put large swaths of the Arctic Ocean off limits to oil drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the order will require him to review previously issued five-year development plans for offshore oil and natural gas leases and regulations governing oil, gas and renewable energy leasing in waters of the Arctic and Atlantic.
The new move is a sharp departure from the Obama administration’s approach to Arctic drilling and protection, demonstrating a dedicated interest in exploring for oil there rather than preventing it.
In one of his last acts as president, Obama prohibited offshore drilling in most U.S. Arctic waters. Trump’s order won’t automatically undo that, but it sets the administration down a path toward new, less stringent regulations and opening more waters to oil companies that have been reluctant to undertake costly Arctic exploration at a time of low international oil prices.
[Obama prohibits drilling in most US Arctic waters]
Trump said twice he at the signing ceremony that the order “reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban.”
He said the moves would create revenue and jobs and enable better scientific study of offshore resources.
“We don’t have to start from scratch,” Zinke told reporters Thursday night. He said that the current five-year plan will remain in place in the meantime, and a review will likely take at least two years. Zinke said the Interior Department is planning no set outcome of the review.
“We’re going to give local communities a voice,” he said.
The president signed the order in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, under a portrait of the room’s namesake, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
Alaska Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young were present, among others: Zinke, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Vice President Mike Pence, and several other White House staffers and members of Congress, according to a press pool report.
After signing the order, Trump handed the pen to Murkowski, according to the pool report.
Sullivan, speaking via phone on his way back to the Capitol from the White House, said the executive order acted as a swift delivery of a December promise made by Vice President Mike Pence.
After then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the administration’s plans to close Arctic waters to drilling, Sullivan said he called and texted Pence asking for help revising the regulations. The next time he saw Pence, Sullivan said, the vice president-elect told him the Trump administration would reverse the ban.
Environmental groups that oppose Arctic drilling piled on to oppose the order before the text was even released Friday.
“Donald Trump is once again showing that his presidency serves the interests of giant oil companies over the health, safety, and future of people across the United States,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Allowing Big Oil to expand offshore drilling to the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans would put coastal economies and ways of life at risk of a devastating oil spill, while worsening the consequences of climate change.”
“President Trump’s order could put the Arctic Ocean—and Alaska’s sensitive northern coast—at risk of a major oil spill,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer and Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.
“The Obama administration learned from Shell’s disastrous record in Alaska, and realized that industry is incapable of safely mobilizing and drilling in such an extreme and sensitive environment,” Epstein said. “President Obama recognized that the Arctic Ocean is important for more than just oil and gas.”
Environmental groups argue that the remoteness of the area and its relative lack of nearby spill-response infrastructure make it a more dangerous place for drilling.
The immediate impact on Alaska will be limited, since oil companies have not been angling to drill there recently. Oil companies have given up most of their current leases in the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea.
But Sullivan said claims of disinterest by the prior administration were disingenuous because it was strict Obama administration regulations that drove oil companies out of the Arctic first.
And he said he hoped that in the short term, the order would give a “psychological boost” to Alaskans facing serious budget challenges, offering a “sense that the future is bright” and that the federal government is now a “partner in opportunity, not obstacle.”