Why Biden’s oil policies upset both oil companies and environmentalists
Enormous. Gargantuan. Huge. Massive. Vast. These are just some of the adjectives journalists have summoned to describe Willow, the Alaskan oil drilling project the Biden administration approved this month that will produce an estimated 19.2 million barrels of oil per year for the next thirty years.
That nine-digit number sure sounds big, but compared to what? Let’s say this circle represents Willow’s annual production.
Here’s how much oil drillers extracted last year in each state.
Willow’s estimated annual production is about one-half of 1 percent of U.S. onshore oil production last year.
But to environmental advocates, Willow is much bigger than that. It represents not just more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, and not just damaging a wild expanse in the Arctic. It also symbolizes a betrayal by a president who won their support by promising to end drilling on federal land.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the saying goes, yet the U.S. oil industry is equally upset at President Biden, whom they portray as hostile to their business. Somehow, Biden’s oil policies have disappointed everyone.
To grasp Biden’s predicament, we need to understand the two basic steps to drill for oil on federal land. First, an oil company leases the land. Then, the company applies for a permit to drill on it. Oil companies are mad about step one, Biden’s leasing policy, while environmentalists are mad about step two, the permits.
The fight over the permits
“No more drilling on federal lands, period,” Biden declared in February 2020 at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. At a debate a month later, Biden repeated the promise twice, this time including offshore drilling in the ban.
Biden’s campaign website limited the promise to a ban of “new” permits, and an administration official told me the pledge was not meant to refer to permits on land that had already been leased, such as the land in Alaska’s North Slope where Willow will be located.
That distinction matters, because pledging to ban all drilling permits would be a bit like a student running for class president on a promise to ban homework. On Biden’s first day in office, his Interior Department approved 11 applications for drilling permits. The next day, it approved 30 more.
Biden’s administration has approved more permits at this point in his presidency than President Donald Trump’s fossil-fuel-friendly government did.
Environmental advocates have called on Biden to bring that number down. Permits for drilling projects like Willow should not be approved in isolation, they say, but should be considered as part of a long-term plan to phase out U.S. oil production.
As it stands, the government rarely denies drilling permits, approving more than 95 percent of them between 2014 and 2019, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
As for the Willow decision, Biden contends his hands were tied. At a news conference last week, the president said his “strong inclination was to disapprove” of Willow, but lawyers warned him the developer, ConocoPhillips, would win a court challenge.
The government and ConocoPhillips agreed the company would drill on three sites rather than the proposed five, but that compromise was unacceptable, environmental campaigners tell me, because the government should have found a way to deny the project.
“We are interested in pushing back on the message that the administration’s hands are completely tied once the lease sale has been made,” Kerry Leslie, the Wilderness Society’s communications director for climate solutions, told me. “They do have the authority to be making decisions to deny permits.”
The Wilderness Society and other environmental organizations have sued to overturn the approval, arguing the government failed to consider less harmful alternatives.
Those cases could be long shots. By law, the government must approve a permit unless doing so would be illegal — if, say, drilling would imperil a protected archaeological site or an endangered animal — according to Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado who worked at the Interior Department during the Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations.
“I’m sympathetic to the government position that they didn’t have much of a choice,” Squillace told me.
The fight over the leases
Before an oil company can obtain a permit, it must first lease the land from the government, and it is at that stage of the process where Biden has come closer to honoring the spirit of his campaign promise.
In his first week in office, Biden paused any new lease sales on federal land. A federal judge overturned that decision, but no onshore lease auctions were held during Biden’s first year in office. The following year, the government offered just 128,511 acres for lease, the fewest in a decade.
The government will offer more acres for lease this year, partly because Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) inserted a provision in last year’s climate and spending bill that requires the Interior Department to sell drilling leases whenever it offers land for renewable energy development. Even still, this year’s offerings mark a decline from the recent past.
The oil industry blames the president for the drop in leasing. “The decline is absolutely a result of Biden’s policies,” Mallori Miller, vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told me.
Holly Hopkins, vice president of upstream policy at the American Petroleum Institute, complained that Biden’s disruption of regular leases “has broken with decades of bipartisan administrations that prioritized U.S. energy security.”
A Biden administration official dismissed those complaints, arguing that oil companies “have been posting record profits that they’ve then chosen to use to pad the pockets of wealthy shareholders and executives rather than increase production using the thousands of permits already available to them.”
Federal law requires the government to hold lease sales every quarter but makes no mention of how much land must be offered. About 52 percent of the 23.8 million federal acres under lease are producing oil and gas, according to Bureau of Land Management data.
If history is any guide, the federal government will continue leasing land to oil drillers as long as there is demand for their product. Yet if consumers continue to replace their gas-powered cars with electric vehicles, then decades from now, Squillace argued, ConocoPhillips may struggle to make Willow profitable.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that in 10 years, we’re not going to have seen a pretty significant shift away from internal combustion engines, and that’s got to have an impact,” Squillace said. “ConocoPhillips is taking a big risk.”
The data in this article comes from the Bureau of Land Management and the Energy Information Administration.
The code to produce the map of oil production by state is in this computational notebook. The chart of permit approvals is in this notebook, and the chart of acres offered for lease is in this notebook.
You can use the code and data to produce your own analyses and charts — and to make sure mine are accurate. If you do, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I might share your work in my next column.
Photos of Joe Biden by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post