National Monuments, Arctic drilling, DAPL highlight final acts of Obama administration

 The Road Canyon Citadel in the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.  Photo: BLM.

The Road Canyon Citadel in the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.  Photo: BLM.

As expected, the final "lame-duck" months of the Obama administration provided several bombshell announcements regarding American public lands and natural resources.  First, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  The denial comes on the heels of the federal government's Sep 2016 announcement that it would be withdrawing the permit in order to consult with affected tribal groups.  Apparently, the consultation was effective in convincing the Corps to deny the permit (though skeptics claim the meetings were pretext for a political decision) and initiate another round of environmental review instead.  There is a good-to-very good chance that the Trump administration will instruct the Corps to issue the permit, but even if that is the case, the permit denial sets precedent for tribal consultation in a more meaningful way.  Perhaps more importantly, the victory for tribes and environmental groups will almost surely inspire and encourage more pipeline protests in the future, having been successful in blocking two consecutive high-profile pipeline projects (DAPL and Keystone XL).  

Second, the Obama administration invoked the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 to set aside wide swaths of the Arctic off-limits for off-shore drilling.  The American portion of the Chukchi Sea will be entirely off-limits, while most of the Beaufort Sea will be as well.  In a corresponding move, Canada declared a freeze on drilling in its portion of the Artic seas.  The OCSLA allows a President to declare portions of the continental shelf off-limits for oil and gas exploration, though up to this point presidents had put a timetable on a drilling moratorium.  Obama's declaration puts these portions of the Artic off-limits "indefinitely."  Trump has appointed notable oil and gas industry supporters to his cabinet (including the Secretaries of State and Energy, as well as the Administrator of the EPA), and it seems clear his administration will not be fond of these drilling withdrawals. But there's not much precedent to reverse a decision of this nature, or at least not unilaterally (the Republican-controlled Congress could always amend the OCSLA).  If reversed, the decision would almost surely be forced to defend itself in the federal courts.

Finally, President Obama established two new National Monuments.  The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.  The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the President of the United States to establish National Monuments as part of the federal public lands system.  Devil's Tower in Wyoming was the first such monument established.  Over time, the Act has been used by presidents to establish substantial areas of land as federally protected.  In total, President Obama has established 29 National Monuments, of which Bears Ears and Gold Butte are his final two.  The move was met with praise and celebration from environmentalists, and scorn and disdain from drilling/grazing interest groups.  Like the OCSLA drilling withdrawals, there is little authority for a president to reverse a National Monument designation (in fact it has never been done before).  But, with a Republican-controlled Congress, several of whom are outraged by the new monuments, there is talk of amending the Antiquities Act or repealing it altogether.  That would be a drastic move, but not altogether surprising if Congress wants to consolidate power over disposition of public lands.

All of this brings us now to the Trump Administration.  President Trump (sworn into office today) will oversee America's public lands and natural resources at a very interesting time.  Climate change continues to dominate debate and negotiations within the international community, the fracking boom is continuing apace domestically, and tensions between public vs. private land supporters remain high.  Meanwhile, with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, the stage is set for their agenda to dictate the terms of these conflicts.  Already Congress is considering bills that would overhaul the balance of power between Congress and administrative agencies.  It is clear, however, that Obama-era activists will not be backing down from these political and legal battles.