US President Barack Obama in January made two widely criticized energy decisions relating to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing.  Significant hay has been raised about their deleterious effects, especially on Alaska.  The president’s actions, however, have silver linings, and perhaps no clouds, but those have been lost so far in the splendiferous aurora borealis. 

Before Keystone XL became the energy third rail, there was ANWR. In the 1990s and 2000s, the rallying cry on one side was to open ANWR to oil production to secure our energy independence and on the other to preserve ANWR’s porcupine caribou and other wildlife. In 1960, about half of what is ANWR today became a federally protected wildlife range. Two decades later, Congress redesignated that range and more land as a wildlife refuge. That law also prohibited oil and gas leasing, production or development without congressional approval. A cacophonous public debate went on for many years before dying when Congress failed to lift its own prohibition with a filibuster and veto-proof vote. 

Late last month, the President decided it was time to end the largely dormant debate by recommending additional protection for most of ANWR as wilderness. But that was all that the President did — he made a recommendation — because only Congress can designate wilderness, just as only Congress can remove its ANWR drilling prohibition. Some considered this recommendation an affront to Alaskans, but in actuality it merely affirmed a long-standing reality: ANWR, which has been de facto wilderness for more than 50 years, would become wilderness under the law.  That would not be a significant change to the status quo, but it would be a big win for the President.  For proponents of drilling in ANWR, there is at least one possible compromise to reconnoiter.  They could consider whether it is or may become technologically feasible to access ANWR’s coastal plain with horizontal drilling from offshore state or federal waters or from nearby undesignated lands without disturbing the wilderness surface and, if so, advocate for that win-win.

The bright lights and loud clamor associated with ANWR have obscured a much more significant decision made by the President last month to address another energy third rail issue from decades past: moratoria on offshore oil and gas development. The decision in question was to expand development off the United States’ east coast. Significantly, this decision comes less than five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident, and less than fifteen years after the US Supreme Court required the US government to refund money paid for leases offshore North Carolina. That is the real energy news. 

There have been complaints from Alaskans about the decision to exclude portions of the Chukchi and the Beaufort Seas (and, in December, Bristol Bay) from development. These complaints are dubious because most of the areas excluded from leasing have historically been deferred from leasing anyway, so there is no substantive change in designating them for protection. The real story in all this is the President’s expansion of offshore leasing to the Atlantic coast.  All in all, these decisions on energy are gutsy, but balanced. 

Cynthia Quarterman is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She served as the Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in the Obama administration , and Director of the former Minerals Management Service in the Clinton administration.

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