Biden continues where Trump left off with oil drilling on public lands, report finds

Days after Cop26, the Biden administration auctioned off drilling permits to the fossil fuel industry across 1.7m acres in the Gulf of Mexico

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Tuesday 07 December 2021 21:18 GMT
Biden signs bipartisan infrastructure package
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President Joe Biden is approving more oil and gas drilling permits each month than Donald Trump did during the first three years in the White House, according to new research.

Among President Biden’s “Day One” campaign promises was not only to reverse the environmental damage wreaked by the previous administration but make progress on an ambitious agenda that would tackle the climate crisis and rampant pollution.

Part of Mr Biden’s pledge was to conserve “America’s natural treasures” by permanently protecting areas impacted by President Trump’s “fire sale” along with “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters”.

However analysis of federal data, published on Monday by progressive think tank Public Citizen, showed that excluding January 2021 – when Mr Trump remained in office until the 20th – the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved an average of roughly 333 drilling permits per month.

This number is down about a quarter from the 452 permits per month in 2020, the final year of the Trump presidency. However it is still more than 35 per cent higher than when Mr Trump took office in 2017.

Under the Biden administration, monthly permit approvals by BLM, the federal agency which leases public lands to oil and gas corporations, peaked at 652 in April. They have been below 2020 levels since the summer after falling under 300 in July.

“In the second half of 2021, the analysis shows that permit approvals under Biden have started to trend downward, a positive sign,” the researchers noted.

The Independent has contacted the White House for comment.

Mr Biden heralded America’s climate progress at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last month. He underlined the importance of his clean energy agenda as the US suffers an ever-worsening cycle of disasters linked to global heating driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

“We’ll demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example,” Mr Biden said in Glasgow.

Days after Cop26 ended, the Biden administration auctioned off drilling permits to the fossil fuel industry across 1.7m acres in the Gulf of Mexico.

“When it comes to climate change policy, President Biden is saying the right things. But we need more than just promises,” said Alan Zibel, the new study’s author.

Emissions from burning and extracting fossil fuels from public lands and waters account for about 25 per cent of domestic carbon emissions, according to the US Geological Survey.

When he had entered the White House in January, Mr Biden officially paused the oil and gas leasing program.

Attorneys general from a group of Republican states, led by oil and gas heavy-Louisiana, successfully challenged Mr Biden’s suspension on sales.

However some environmental campaigners argued that the Biden administration wasn’t actually obligated to restart the leasing program, and there were other legal options for the president to avail of.

Earthjustice contends that government officials violated federal law by relying on a flawed and out-of-date environmental analysis from 2017, while ignoring new information about the severity of the climate crisis. “The administration is legally obligated to evaluate this information before taking any action,” the environmental law organisation said in a statement last month.

Fossil fuel corporations including Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil were able to bid in the November lease sale which could keep them actively pumping oil in the Gulf for many years.

In a special report in May, global energy watchdog the International Energy Agency warned that to avoid dangerous climate change and keep to the global 2050 net-zero target, there must be no new investment in fossil fuel supply projects.

In a statement to The Independent a spokesperson for Department of Interior, which oversees BLM, said: “Permit reviews on legally maintained leases are required by law. At the same time, Interior is conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before. Onshore, the Bureau of Land Management is looking at cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from multiple lease sales for the first time ever, and for those lease sales is also carrying out a robust public comment process.

“Offshore, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is using updated greenhouse gas emission models to take substitution impacts and foreign oil consumption into account, resulting in the most robust projections ever of the climate impacts of offshore lease sales. Both agencies are also using the social cost of carbon to better understand the true impacts of fossil fuel leasing decisions.”

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