In issuing its order, the Obama administration cited provision 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which states, "The President of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf."
That provision does not explicitly allow future executives to reverse their predecessors' action. The Obama administration essentially made a bet that a judge would determine Trump can't override its effort to permanently withdraw the areas from lease auctions.
As expected, Trump pushed back last Friday, signing an executive order aimed at making available for lease more of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, the parts of the ocean and seabed under federal jurisdiction. Among other things, it rescinded Obama's December order.
Now, environmental groups are asking the U.S. District Court of Alaska to prevent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, also named as defendants in the suit, from executing the part of Trump's order that takes aim at Obama's offshore ban.
"We're aware of the complaint and reviewing it. We have no further comment," a Department of Justice spokesperson told CNBC.
The suit essentially takes the baton from the Obama administration, arguing Trump's order "exceeds his constitutional authority and his statutory authority under OCSLA, and is therefore ... unlawful"
"Until Trump, no president has ever tried to reverse a permanent withdrawal made under OCSLA, which does not authorize such a reversal," the conservation groups said in a statement.
That is technically true, but it also obscures the unprecedented nature of Obama's action. Past presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have temporarily removed parts of the Outer Continental Shelf from lease consideration, but the Obama administration was the first to use provision 12(a) in a bid to block drilling in federal waters indefinitely.