Obama's permanent Atlantic drilling ban excludes most of the Southeast coast

Bureau of Ocean Energy Mangement map showing the areas in the Atlantic Ocean protected by the permanent drilling ban President Obama announced on Dec. 20.

This week President Obama made a long-anticipated announcement that he was imposing a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic and the Atlantic — but the protected area in the Atlantic excludes much of the Southeast coast.

On Tuesday, Obama announced he was withdrawing 5,990 square miles in the north and mid-Atlantic from future drilling, protecting 31 ecologically sensitive undersea canyons that extend from the Heezen Canyon off the New England coast to the Norfolk Canyon about 70 miles off the coast of Virginia near the Maryland border. The move builds on Obama's creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument protecting over 4,900 square miles of marine ecosystems southeast of Cape Cod.

"The President's bold action recognizes the vulnerable marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, their critical and irreplaceable ecological value, as well as the unique role that commercial fishing and subsistence use plays in the regions' economies and cultures," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department oversees offshore drilling.

However, Obama did not extend permanent protections to much of the Outer Continental Shelf off the Virginia coast, or to areas off the coasts of the other Southeastern states. An earlier administration proposal had considered offering drilling leases in an area extending from Virginia to Georgia for the 2017-2022 planning period. But after an outpouring of opposition from environmentalists, the fishing industry, tourism businesses, and coastal communities, the administration withdrew that proposal earlier this year.

Dustin Cranor, a spokesperson for Oceana, a national conservation group that was involved in organizing opposition to Atlantic drilling, acknowledged that much of the Southeastern coast was left out of the permanent protections. But he said efforts to block drilling there would continue.

"Coastal opposition remains committed to ensuring that offshore drilling activities never take place in the Atlantic Ocean, including off North Carolina's coast," he told Facing South.

The movement against Atlantic drilling will face tougher odds under the administration of Donald Trump, who's been a staunch advocate of expanding domestic fossil fuel production. Trump is also staffing his new administration with like-minded people, including his pick of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.

Obama declared the permanent drilling ban under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which allows the president to "withdraw from disposition" any area of the Outer Continental Shelf that hasn't already been leased for oil or gas drilling. While the provision allows presidents to create protected areas, legal experts say it does not authorize them to reverse such protections, which would have to be done by Congress.