Obama flexes muscles on resources with eye on legacy

By Phil Taylor | 02/23/2015 12:49 PM EST

President Obama has quickly built a fat portfolio on natural resource issues. In the last two years, he’s designated or expanded a dozen national monuments, preserved more than 1.1 million acres in the West and moved to permanently ban drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s proposed in the last month the biggest expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration in a generation, paving the way for rigs in mostly virgin mid-Atlantic waters, while permitting the first production in the largest U.S. petroleum reserve. As the clock ticks down on Obama’s term, his allies and critics are sizing up his record — and thinking about what he’ll do next.

President Obama has quickly built a hefty portfolio on natural resource issues.

In the last two years, Obama has designated or expanded a dozen national monuments, preserved more than 1.1 million acres in the West and moved to permanently ban drilling in the oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

And in the last month he’s proposed the biggest expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration in a generation, paving the way for drilling rigs to plumb mostly virgin waters from Virginia to Georgia, while permitting the first oil production in the nation’s largest petroleum reserve. Last Friday, his administration unveiled major rules governing Arctic oil exploration.


While Obama still has nearly two years left in the White House, his allies and critics are already sizing up his record on resources — and thinking about what’s to come.

If history is any indication, Obama’s pace of executive actions on lands and waters could accelerate.

Consider that President Clinton in his last year in office designated or expanded 18 of his 19 national monuments, permanently setting aside more than 3.3 million acres, according to National Park Service data.

Obama last week designated three new monuments covering 22,000 acres in Illinois, Colorado and Hawaii, calling parks, monuments and waters the "birthright of all Americans."

Other major land and energy decisions are fast approaching:

  • The administration will decide in coming months whether to permit Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill in the relatively pristine Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s North Slope, where there are an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil.
  • The Bureau of Land Management will write or finalize major rules governing hydraulic fracturing, methane venting and flaring, and royalties.
  • And BLM will finalize unprecedented new protections for sage grouse across tens of millions of acres of Western rangelands, an effort some conservationists are comparing to Clinton’s sweeping 2001 roadless rule.

"What Obama is doing is setting a platform for action over the next two years," said Bill Meadows, former president of the Wilderness Society. "There’s so much more that can be done, and I think he’s enjoying it."

Not enjoying Obama’s action: Republican lawmakers.

"This White House has shown once again its utter and complete disdain for the public process, Congress and the communities most impacted by these unilateral, unchecked land designations," House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said after Obama’s monuments announcement last week. "Obama has sidelined the American public and bulldozed transparency."

While Republicans accuse Obama of flouting Congress and putting a regulatory muzzle on the nation’s energy renaissance, they appear powerless to stop him.

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives presidents almost unchecked powers to ban oil drilling, mining and logging across enormous swaths of the American West. Clinton famously used the law in 1996 to designate the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, blocking development of a massive coal deposit and enraging lawmakers in the Beehive State.

Obama has so far used the law more diplomatically, designating monuments only where there is broad political support and, incidentally, only in states that voted for him in 2012.

He’s used the act 16 times, setting aside land at a faster clip than Clinton, but with fewer acres. But it’s tough to draw comparisons, since every acre conserved is not equal.

A big test will be whether Obama will protect landscapes in hostile territory — such as the half-million-acre Boulder-White Clouds in central Idaho and nearly 2 million acres surrounding Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Republican lawmakers in those states are urging Obama to stand down as they seek legislative protections.

But top Obama aides say the president has plenty of ink in his pen for creating monuments if Congress fails to act.

Green groups are also seeking protections of 1.7 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon, more than 1 million acres in the Southern California desert and 350,000 acres of Nevada’s Gold Butte, a vast desert of multihued rocks, petroglyphs and slot canyons.

Obama getting ‘the hang of it’

Conservationists say Obama has gone from timid to bold on resource issues.

They point to Obama’s proposal last month to designate some 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness — barring access to an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil that Alaskan officials badly want to supply the depleted Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System.

The move was symbolic, since only Congress can decide whether the refuge is opened to drilling. But it reversed a Reagan administration plan seeking full oil and gas development in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain — a major policy stamp for the next 15 years.

And in contrast with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft ANWR wilderness proposal — which was quietly unveiled in August 2011, barely getting noticed in the media — Obama and his advisers touted the final wilderness plan with gusto. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Chief of Staff Tommy Beaudreau stopped by the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Alaska Wilderness League to celebrate the proposal.

It was a poke in the eye to the Alaska congressional delegation, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

"He’s growing more comfortable using the administrative powers at his disposal," said Mike Matz, director of U.S. public lands for the Pew Charitable Trusts. "His administration has gotten … the hang of it."

Matz credited John Podesta, the president’s senior counselor on global warming, who founded the liberal Center for American Progress, for prodding Obama to act. Podesta in summer 2012, while at CAP, called monument designations "good politics," arguing they could burnish Obama’s re-election bid in key Western battleground states. The ANWR announcement came at a politically advantageous time, given that gasoline prices were plunging as domestic oil production in the Lower 48 soared.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt played a similar role with Clinton by challenging the 42nd president to match the conservation achievements of past commanders in chief, Matz said.

"In Obama, you had another instigator in John Podesta," Matz said. "You need someone who can make the administration comfortable up and down the ranks."

Greens question whether Obama will keep up the momentum as key staffers depart and the administration heads for the home stretch.

Podesta left the White House this month to join Hillary Clinton’s political team as she considers jumping into the 2016 presidential race. And Mike Boots, the acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who is viewed as another champion for land protections, plans to leave the administration in March.

In addition, Obama is already laying claim to protecting more land and waters than any other president. The claim is true if you count the president’s decision last September to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to more than 490,000 square miles.

Some conservationists fear he’ll rest on his laurels. But others see new allies arriving at the White House.

A fresh arrival hailed by green groups is Christy Goldfuss, a former National Park Service political appointee who worked under Podesta at CAP, who is being groomed to take the helm at CEQ, sources said.

Environmentalists are also enthusiastic about Michael Degnan, a former Sierra Club representative, and Angela Barranco, who are both at CEQ, as well as Jewell’s Deputy Chief of Staff Nikki Buffa, BLM Director Neil Kornze, and Agriculture Department Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie.

Last Wednesday, Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor attended a public meeting in Las Vegas with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) to discuss their proposals to protect more than 1 million acres at Gold Butte and at Garden and Coal valleys, which include remote archaeological sites and a massive public art project.

Connor’s attendance suggests the administration could be considering the area for a future monument. Jewell and Bonnie in December also visited Northern California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain region, where conservationists are clamoring for a 350,000-acre monument designation.

‘Not a love fest’

Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University who has written extensively on land conservation, said Obama must act with more pluck to rival Clinton’s conservation legacy.

Neither president will rival the achievements of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, who make up the "Mount Rushmore" of land conservation, according to Brinkley.

But Obama, who has already earned the title of "the climate change president," faces few political risks in pushing the conservation envelope, Brinkley said.

"The political atmosphere couldn’t be better for the president to be brave in using the Antiquities Act."

The administration has put its stamp on public lands in more subtle ways, too, by implementing controversial oil and gas leasing reforms in 2010 that were followed by a steep drop in BLM lands leased for drilling, and by yanking 77 George W. Bush-era oil and gas leases that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar argued were too close to national parks in Utah.

BLM issued 1,157 oil and gas leases in fiscal 2014, a 20 percent drop from the previous year and the lowest amount in at least a quarter-century, according to agency statistics released last month. Over the past five years, the agency has leased an average of 1.5 million acres annually, down significantly from the 4 million acres the George W. Bush administration leased annually during its final five years in office.

Oil production has grown steadily on Western federal lands, but nowhere near as fast as on private tracts overlying shale plays in states like North Dakota and Texas. The administration’s critics blame BLM red tape, while others attribute the discrepancy to geology.

Natural gas production has dropped steadily on federal lands — even as it has soared elsewhere — and oil production has fallen under Obama’s watch in the Gulf of Mexico, though some of the drop can be attributed to the halt in drilling following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

"[For] people pushing for more government control and less extraction on federal lands, Obama is their savior," said Dan Kish, senior vice president for the Institute for Energy Research, a free-market advocacy group. "He’s basically given them all they want and more."

Oil backers offered tempered praise for Obama’s decision last month to open the Atlantic Ocean to future leasing, though they blasted his decision to ban development within 50 miles of shore, a restriction some fear will preclude exploration altogether.

The leasing proposal "slams the door on industry and on new jobs, increased economic activity, added revenue and strengthened energy security," said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.

But Meadows, the Wilderness Society former president, said Obama is far from a conservationist lap dog.

Obama’s "all of the above" energy platform has included a heavy emphasis on natural gas drilling, coal leasing in Wyoming and drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Meadows said.

"This is not a love fest by any means," he said.

‘Very pragmatic’

According to Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton Interior official, Obama has been "bullish" on the future of oil and gas development.

The administration has implemented unprecedented safety reforms in the Gulf of Mexico and is preparing two major rules governing hydraulic fracturing and the venting and flaring of methane — moves that should facilitate continued development of federal minerals, he said.

"The Obama administration has reformed and improved the safety and environmental sustainability of oil and gas development on public lands and waters more profoundly than any other recent president," Bledsoe said. "This administration, in my view, has been very pro-oil and gas development, even while protecting pristine landscapes from development and creating a record area of new national monuments."

Bledsoe said it is politically remarkable that less than five years after the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the administration is poised to open the Atlantic.

Moreover, the administration has taken a flexible approach to conserving the greater sage grouse, Bledsoe said, by taking lessons from the northern spotted owl, whose protection under the Endangered Species Act in the early 1990s led to dramatic reductions in logging.

"They’re very pragmatic," Bledsoe said. "It’s a window into the adaptability of the Obama administration’s view of conservation broadly."