The Obama administration’s Interior Department will withdraw plans to drill off the southeast Atlantic coast, potentially opening up a new chapter of US energy policy that keeps oil, coal and natural gas in the ground.

Last year, the US Interior Department put forth a proposal to allow fossil fuel companies to drill in the region for the first time.

If the fossil fuel status quo continues on its current trajectory, then the worst effects of climate change will be realized in the decades ahead: increasingly erratic weather patterns, extreme droughts and storms, polluted atmospheres, mass displacement of people, mass extinction of species and so many other unknown outcomes.

To avoid this path, oil, coal and natural gas have to stay in the ground. New licenses can’t keep being issued to explore and extract oil from new areas.

Humanity is rapidly approaching a threshold point of tolerable carbon emissions—one trillion tons of carbon. As more fossil fuels are extracted, the faster this threshold approaches.

If the drilling plan had gone ahead, it’s estimated that 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be extracted from the southeast Atlantic coast of the US  Some experts say extraction levels could be much higher.

To put those figures in perspective, the US used 6.97 billion barrels of oil and 26.70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2014.

So avoiding these drilling efforts isn’t exactly a game changer.

But even suggesting such a venture drew the outrage of activists, citizens and businesses throughout the region.

80 east coast legislators and the owners of nearly 1,000 coastal businesses signed letters urging President Obama to abandon the plans.

At the top of everyone’s mind was the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that poured millions of gallons of oil into coastal waters that devastated the environment.

The effects of that catastrophe also substantially hurt local economies that depended on coastal activities. The effects are still being felt.

Beyond the short-term risks of drilling accidents, however, opponents are aware of a much bigger and more ominous problem: climate change.

The Obama administration’s latest decision shows that they understand this reality. It also indicates that Obama wants to leave a strong environmental legacy.

Up to this point, though, his record has been mixed.

Under Obama, the US has seen the biggest domestic fossil fuel boom in its history.

And the US is still by far the biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, even if China surpassed it in total emissions a few years ago.

The climate commitments the US made at COP21 and the decision to shut down the hugely symbolic keystone pipeline are a turning point in President Obama’s legacy and could potentially usher in a new era of environmental action.

Standing up to the fossil fuel industry is an important step. In the years ahead, governments around the world will have to step up a lot more frequently.


Defend the Planet

Obama ends drilling plans in Atlantic, marks an environmental turning point

By Joe McCarthy