President Donald Trump will sign executive orders this week aimed at expanding offshore oil drilling and reviewing national monument designations made by his predecessors, continuing the Republican's assault on Democratic President Barack Obama's environmental legacy.
The orders could expand oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and upend public lands protections put in place in Utah, Maine and other states. The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to declare federal lands of historic or scientific value to be "national monuments" and restrict how the lands can be used.
Administration officials on Monday confirmed the expected moves. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the president's upcoming actions.
Obama used his power under the Antiquities Act to permanently preserve more land and water using national monument designations than any other president. The land is generally off limits to timber harvesting, mining and pipelines, and commercial development.
Utah Republicans were infuriated when Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in December on more than 1 million acres of land that's sacred to Native Americans and home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings.
Republicans also objected when Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine last summer on 87,500 acres of donated forestland. The expanse includes part of the Penobscot River and stunning views of Mount Katahdin, Maine's tallest mountain.
Republicans have asked Trump to reverse the two designations, saying they add an unnecessary layer of federal control and could stymie commercial development.
Trump's staff has been reviewing the decisions to determine economic impacts, whether the law was followed and whether there was appropriate consultation with local officials.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he was grateful that Trump was moving to roll back what Hatch called "massive federal land grabs" by presidents dating to Bill Clinton. Hatch and other Utah Republicans have long lamented Clinton's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
"For years, I have fought every step of the way to ensure that our lands are managed by the Utahans that know them best and cherish them deeply," Hatch said in a statement. "That's why I'm committed to rolling back the egregious abuse of the Antiquities Act to serve far-left special interests," including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Environmental groups blasted Trump's action.
"Utah's national monuments are our first line of defense against the very real specter of climate change, providing resiliency to not only the species within them, but also to nearby communities," said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "President Trump and the Utah delegation should focus their energies on solving America's challenges, rather than unraveling the solutions that are already working."
Trump also is taking aim at Obama's action to restrict offshore drilling, notably a December order designating the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.
The move was seen as an effort to put some finishing touches on Obama's environmental legacy while also testing Trump's promise to unleash the nation's untapped energy reserves.
Obama cited an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. The statute says "the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf."
White House officials said when Obama imposed the order they were confident it would withstand legal challenge, adding that the language of the statute provides no authority for subsequent presidents to undo permanent withdrawals. Environmental groups say a similar logic applies to national monuments and note that no president has acted to undo a monument designation made by a predecessor.
The Atlantic waters placed off-limits to new oil and gas leasing are 31 canyons stretching off the coast of New England south to Virginia. Existing leases aren't affected.
While Trump appears eager to issue executive orders before his first 100 days as president, the drilling order is "ill-timed, falling just one week after the seventh anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history," said Dustin Cranor, a spokesman for the environmental group Oceana. He was referring to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Expanding offshore drilling into now-restricted areas in the Arctic and Atlantic would put vibrant ocean ecosystems at risk and harm businesses, including tourism, recreation and fishing, Cranor said.
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