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Biden is approving more oil and gas drilling permits on public lands than Trump, analysis finds

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! We chuckled at the line about Politico journalists in HBO's “Succession” last night. But first: 

Biden is approving more drilling permits on public lands than Trump, analysis shows

The Biden administration has approved more oil and gas drilling permits on public lands per month than the Trump administration did during the first three years of Donald Trump's presidency, according to an analysis shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

The report by Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group, illustrates that President Biden has been slow to reverse Trump's fossil-fuel-friendly agenda, despite his campaign promise to push for “no more drilling on federal lands" because of climate change.

The analysis looked at data from the Bureau of Land Management, which processes applications for drilling permits on public lands. Its main findings were:

  • During Biden's first year in office so far, BLM has approved an average of 333 drilling permits per month. That figure is more than 35% higher than Trump's first year in office, when BLM approved an average of 245 drilling permits per month.
  • That number is also higher than the monthly average in 2018 (279 permits) and 2019 (284 permits), but lower than the monthly average in 2020 (452 permits), when oil companies stockpiled permits in the final months of the Trump administration.
  • Under Biden, monthly permit approvals peaked at 652 in April but have started to trend downward in the second half of 2021.
  • (When analyzing Biden's first year in office, the group excluded January 2021, when Trump was in office for most of the month. Similarly, when analyzing Trump's first year in office, it excluded January 2017, when Barack Obama was president for most of the month.)

"From an environmentalist's point of view, this doesn't look great for Biden," Alan Zibel, the lead author of the analysis and the research director of Public Citizen's Corporate Presidency Project, told The Climate 202.

Jamie Henn, an organizer with the Build Back Fossil Free coalition who was not involved in the analysis, said the findings underscore his frustrations with the Biden administration.

"The president has basically only tried to tackle one side of the climate problem," Henn told The Climate 202. "He's talked a lot about building clean energy, but he hasn't done anything to stop fossil fuels. And you need to tackle both sides if we're going to address this crisis."

Court challenges

Still, Zibel said the findings are "understandable" within a broader legal context, noting that the courts have constrained Biden's ability to curtail oil and gas development on public lands.

  • During his first week in office, Biden issued an executive order instructing the Interior Department to pause all new lease sales on public lands and waters while it reviewed how to adjust the program.
  • But Western oil drillers and 14 Republican-led states sued over the order. And in June, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction to block the leasing pause.
  • The Biden administration is appealing that court decision. In the meantime, Interior has offered leases to oil and gas companies on more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. The administration also plans to hold onshore lease sales in February.

Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to comment on the Public Citizen analysis, although she previously said in a statement that the department is "complying with a U.S. District Court's decision."

Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry added in an emailed statement to The Climate 202: "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."

From a White House spokesperson: “President Biden kept his campaign promise and ordered a pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands, which the courts have subsequently blocked, mandating that the program continue. Interior’s Oil and Gas report reflects the current state of that program and it confirms what we have always known: that this program delivers a bad deal for American taxpayers and that it needs to be reformed. That’s why, just as President Biden promised he would do on the campaign trail, both the Department of the Interior and the Congress are advancing measures to modernize the program, minimize environmental impacts, including on the climate, and ensure that we are managing these resources to secure the best value for American taxpayers.” 

Republican rhetoric

The analysis also comes as Republicans have sought to blame high gas prices on Biden's restrictions on domestic oil and gas production. The GOP is seeking to weaponize the energy price crunch to bash Democrats up for reelection next year.

  • “If President Biden and his Department of the Interior get their way, the prices will go up even higher. Inflation is here to stay under the Democrats," Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said on the Senate floor last week.
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted last week that high gas prices are "what happens when the government is controlled by Democrats who cancel pipelines and keep American energy buried in the ground."

Zibel, the author of the Public Citizen analysis, called such rhetoric "disingenuous." He pointed to a recent report by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group, which found that changes in federal leasing policy would have a negligible impact on gas prices compared to global crude oil prices and consumer demand.

“The idea that the Biden administration's public lands policies are having a meaningful impact on oil and gasoline prices,” Zibel said, “is just not a serious argument.”

Environmental justice

Money for climate resilience tends to favor the wealthy

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by Biden last month includes $50 billion to protect communities from the effects of climate change, but these funds have in the past gone to programs favoring wealthier, white communities with high property values, the New York Times’s Christopher Flavelle reports

The climate provisions in the infrastructure bill allocate billions to competitive grant programs for which towns, cities and counties can submit applications. But rich communities are often more aware of these programs in the first place and better positioned to write successful applications.

Biden has promised that this time will be different, and that at least 40 percent of climate spending will reach underserved communities, including low-income communities of color and rural areas. But experts say there will be challenges in leveling the playing field. 

Agency alert

Former Justice official pushed to delay a major water pollution case

Former Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Bossert Clark may be best known for trying to help Trump overturn the results of the presidential election. But he was already clashing with colleagues a year before over one of the biggest water pollution cases in U.S. history, Sarah N. Lynch of Reuters reports.

Clark, who led the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, pushed to delay a case against a North Dakota pipeline operator implicated in one of the largest-ever inland wastewater spills from oil drilling, according to three people familiar with the matter, documents and calendar entries.

Clark wanted to hold off on bringing criminal and civil charges against Summit Midstream Partners until the Supreme Court ruled on a separate water pollution case. But his colleagues saw that case as unrelated and took the rare step of appealing directly to then-Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, saying the case should proceed under the Clean Water Act. The case ultimately led to $36.3 million in criminal and civil penalties against Summit.

Pressure points

Scientists cheered the birth of a North Atlantic right whale

Slalom, a 39-year-old North Atlantic right whale, was spotted with a baby off South Carolina, leading to a sigh of relief among scientists and whale watchers. But for a species so critically endangered that they are as likely to die as to give birth, the survival of the mother and calf in “human-infested waters” is far from certain, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.

The right whale population has fallen from more than 500 in 2020 to 335 today, with fewer than 100 adult females remaining. The whales face threats from fishing nets, ships and climate change. Global warming is forcing them to follow prey into waters that have fewer protections from vessel strikes and net entanglements.

Poisoning of Oregon gray wolves renews calls for their protection

Eight gray wolves have been fatally poisoned in eastern Oregon over the last five months, prompting authorities to ask for help finding the people responsible. The deaths come amid an intense legal and policy fight over how to protect the species, The Post's Paulina Firozi reports.

In 2020, the Trump administration stripped the predators of Endangered Species Act protections in the Lower 48 states. But in September, the Biden administration said it would review whether to restore protections for gray wolves in the western United States.

Climate solutions

Climate visionary Alhaji Siraj Bah wants to stop deforestation in Sierra Leone

Alhaji Siraj Bah lost his best friend in a mudslide four years ago. Now, at 22, his business in Sierra Leone is dedicated to fighting deforestation by using coconuts as an alternative to wood-based charcoal. Bah’s business, which employs nearly three dozen people, hopes to reduce tree cutting, which scientists say contributes to mudslide risk.

As part of the The Post’s climate visionary series, Danielle Paquette tells the story of how Bah was living on the streets in Freetown from age 12 until he met his friend Abdul. Nine months after moving in with Abdul’s family, a mudslide destroyed the home of his adopted family and claimed the life of his best friend. Bah might have lost his life in the mudslide, too, if his boss had not asked him to work a night shift.

After that, Bah became focused on stopping deforestation. He researched the idea of crafting charcoal replacements from coconut shells on his boss's computer and raised enough money to buy the machine needed to make coconut briquettes. Now, his business, Rugsal Trading, has a roster of clients that includes grocery stores around Freetown.


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