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Biden outpaces Trump in issuing drilling permits on public lands

The widening gulf between the president’s policies on oil, gas and coal extraction and his initial promises has raised questions about his climate goals

The Eagle Butte coal mine in Gillette, Wyo., as seen in a rearview mirror, in November. Lawyers for the federal government this month declined to defend the Obama administration’s 2016 coal moratorium and, instead, argued that a lawsuit to restore it should be dismissed. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

After years of federal lease sales to oil, gas and coal companies, environmentalists had hopes that President Biden would end the fossil fuel bonanza.

But one year after announcing a halt to any new federal oil and gas leasing, Biden has outpaced Donald Trump in issuing drilling permits on public lands. After setting a record for the largest offshore lease sale last year in the Gulf of Mexico, the Interior Department plans to auction off oil and gas drilling rights on more than 200,000 acres across Western states by the end of March, followed by 1 million acres in the Cook Inlet, off the coast of Alaska.

The administration’s actions reveal an uncomfortable truth: Although Biden supports a shift to cleaner sources of energy, he has failed to curb fossil fuel development in the United States. His push to suspend federal oil and gas auctions has run headlong into political and legal challenges, and his administration has offered no plan to address the climate impact of mining in Wyoming’s coal-rich Powder River Basin. Collectively, these activities account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This month, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management indicated it would reverse the Trump administration’s decision to expand oil and gas production on the largest swath of federal land, the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska — but would allow drilling on half of the reserve.

Four days later, lawyers for the federal government declined to defend the Obama administration’s 2016 coal moratorium, which Trump lifted two months after taking office. Instead, they argued that environmentalists’ lawsuit to restore it should be dismissed on technical grounds.

Climate activists have expressed dismay at the administration’s actions, questioning how the White House can allow more fossil fuel extraction on public lands, given its commitment to cut U.S. emissions.

“On one hand, we’re very happy with the administration’s climate goals,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program. “But we’re very disappointed and really kind of confused as to why the actions on leasing and drilling haven’t matched the rhetoric.”

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U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty in Louisiana struck down Biden’s Jan. 27, 2021, executive order in June, dealing a major blow to the president’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. The decision by Doughty, a Trump appointee, highlights the challenge in curbing fossil fuel production when current law directs the government to auction off federal land and many states rely on royalty revenue. The authority to suspend oil and gas leasing lies “solely with Congress,” Doughty wrote.

Biden officials said they could be held in contempt if they didn’t resume leasing.

Legal challenges have “made it impossible for us to stop many of these leases,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during Thursday’s daily briefing.

"We have an entirely different policy from the Trump administration on addressing ... the climate crisis,” Psaki added.

Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the department is “conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before,” by evaluating the societal impacts of burning fossil fuels and the total climate impact of multiple sales.

Climate advocates said they had expected Biden officials would find a way to slow drilling, either through litigation or by reopening the environmental review process for proposed lease sales — delaying them and possibly canceling them outright.

Instead, the administration approved more than 3,500 oil and gas drilling permits in its first year, nearly 900 more than the Trump administration did in its first year, according to an analysis of federal data by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Last fall, Biden officials put 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico up for auction in the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. While it sold only a fraction of that amount — about 1.7 million acres — it netted nearly $192 million and ranked as the most profitable offshore auction since March 2019.

Before those leases could take effect, a federal judge invalidated the entire sale Thursday, delivering a victory to environmentalists. Judge Rudolph Contreras, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, wrote in his opinion that the government had justified the sale using a flawed analysis, which assumed that the climate impacts would be worse if the acreage went unsold.

“The Court believes that [the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s] error was indeed a serious failing,” Contreras wrote.

Dan Naatz, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an interview that the administration “should be credited with moving forward with the drilling permits.”

Still, Naatz said, he anticipates challenges ahead for the small and midsize oil and gas companies his group represents, including stricter regulations and a possible hike in federal royalty rates. “But we want to work with them,” he said.

The administration has taken some steps to address the climate impact of drilling and mining on public lands. On his first day in office, Biden revoked a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands to U.S. refineries. He moved to ban new oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Canyon, a sacred tribal site in northwestern New Mexico.

As it prepares to auction off oil and gas leases in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and several other Western states by the end of March, the administration has reduced the size of these sales by thousands of acres to protect animal habitat and due to low industry demand in some places. Yet environmental advocates say they shouldn’t happen at all.

At the same time, the administration’s approach to federal coal leasing has also upset many conservationists, who see phasing out coal as a source of electricity as key to curbing global warming.

When Biden temporarily halted new oil and gas leasing on federal land and waters a week after taking office, environmentalists thought he would also restore President Barack Obama’s moratorium on coal auctions.

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That announcement never came. Last summer, Interior officials said they would conduct a review of federal coal leasing — but would not suspend auctions in the meantime. White House officials took the moratorium off the table to avoid alienating Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), according to two individuals briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, given his pivotal role in the evenly divided Senate.

The government has not held a coal lease sale since Biden took office. The BLM is considering nine active coal lease applications, but it has yet to schedule any sales. Still, the administration has taken other steps that benefit the industry.

Under Biden, the BLM has given several coal companies breaks on royalty payments, despite the president’s pledge to end federal fossil fuel subsidies. In a decision the agency issued last May, it cut the royalty rate for a Colorado mine owned by Arch Resources from 8 to 5 percent, “to encourage the greatest ultimate recovery of the resource.” Critics complained the company didn’t need help — a few months later, Arch reported net income for the quarter of $27.9 million.

This year, the BLM defended Trump-era coal leasing plans in Montana and Wyoming that conservation groups argued violated environmental law. Biden officials said they were sufficient.

Jenny Harbine, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in an interview that if the administration allows more coal mining to go forward, the effects could be “tremendous.”

“The opportunity costs of not doing something will be felt generations into the future if this administration doesn’t reverse course quickly and begin to align its actions with its words,” Harbine said.

National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan said his member companies did not expect much help out of the administration. But he predicted that the rising price of coal amid surging natural gas prices will probably encourage them to snap up new federal leases.

“That market signal and the rise in the price is going to increase demand for additional leases on federal land,” Nolan said.

Beyond filing lawsuits, frustrated environmentalists are pressuring their allies in the administration to change course, arguing that climate voters who supported Democrats in 2020 could stay home during midterm elections and cost the party its hold on Congress.

Jeremy Nichols, who directs the climate and energy program at the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, said in an email that he never anticipated the administration would take this path when Biden was elected.

“This administration seems to actually have a zeal for catering to the oil and gas industry, something that was very unexpected and now very distressing as the climate crisis ravages our nation,” he said.

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