Biden outpaced Trump on drilling permits in first year
Despite President Joe Biden's promise to phase out federal leasing for fossil fuel extraction, his administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first year than the Trump administration did in 2017.
That's according to the Center for Biological Diversity's new analysis of federal data released Friday, which shows that the Biden White House rubber-stamped 3,557 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in 2021—a 34% increase over former President Donald Trump's administration, which greenlit 2,658 drilling permits in its first year.
Of the drilling authorized by the Biden administration in the past year, almost 2,000 permits were approved for public lands in New Mexico, followed by 843 in Wyoming, 285 in Montana and North Dakota, and 191 in Utah. In California, Biden signed off on 187 permits—more than twice as many as the 71 that Trump approved for drilling on the Golden State's public lands during his first year in office.
"Biden's runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership," the Center for Biological Diversity's Taylor McKinnon said Friday in a statement. "Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires ending new fossil fuel extraction, but Biden is racing in the opposite direction."
One year ago, Biden issued an executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing. The president's pause of the federal leasing program was meant to give the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) time to conduct a comprehensive review of the "potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters."
However, a group of Republican attorneys general awash in $4.5 million of campaign cash from the fossil fuel lobby sued the Biden administration in March, arguing that its moratorium violated a federal law requiring quarterly lease sales. In June, a Trump-appointed federal judge sided with them and issued a preliminary injunction.
While the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the ruling—and ultimately said in August that the judge's decision to invalidate the pause does not compel the Biden administration to immediately resume new fossil fuel lease sales—the DOI backed down and took steps to resurrect the then-frozen oil and gas leasing program.
In November—just days after Biden professed Washington's alleged commitment to decarbonization at the COP26 climate summit—the White House held Lease Sale 257, an auction condemned as ecologically irresponsible for offering up 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico's seabed to the highest-bidding oil and gas companies.
Despite Biden's pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade, his administration also plans to allow fossil fuel corporations to purchase drilling rights for hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands.
As Food & Water Watch explained last month, the Biden administration has "acknowledged that it has many other legal mechanisms to prohibit new oil and gas leasing aside from" the disputed moratorium, which undermines its claim that "its hands were tied" by a right-wing judge.
Earlier this week, as Common Dreams reported, a coalition of more than 360 progressive advocacy groups submitted a petition calling on the Biden administration to use its executive authority to phase out oil and gas production on public lands and in offshore waters.
The petition comes equipped with a regulatory framework to wind down oil and gas production by 98% by 2035. According to the coalition, the Biden administration can achieve this goal by using long-dormant provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.
"Biden squandered precious time seeking climate action from a broken Congress," McKinnon said Friday, referring to the Build Back Better Act that has been put on the shelf due to obstructionism from corporate Democrats and Republicans. "We need executive action now to meet the climate emergency with the urgency it demands, starting with ending the fossil fuel extraction the president controls."
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that roughly 25% of the nation's total carbon emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters, and according to the DOI, the social costs of burning oil and gas obtained by drilling and fracking on government-owned parcels—including rising sea levels, extreme weather disasters, and adverse public health effects—range from $357 million to over $4 billion.
Nevertheless, the DOI's long-awaited review of its oil and gas leasing program largely ignored the climate crisis, leading environmental justice campaigners to describe the November report as a "shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters."
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons."
Peer-reviewed research, meanwhile, has estimated that a nationwide ban on federal fossil fuel leasing would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year.
"Without such action," the Center for Biological Diversity explained Friday, "it will become increasingly difficult for the United States to meet its pledge to help avoid 1.5°C of warming and its unprecedented social, environmental, and economic damage."
According to a recent analysis by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the worldwide transition to renewable energy is far behind schedule—with fossil fuel use projected to increase this decade even as annual reductions in coal, oil, and gas production are necessary to avoid the worst consequences of the climate emergency.
If countries—starting with the rich polluters most responsible for exacerbating extreme weather—fail to rapidly and drastically slash greenhouse gas pollution, UNEP warned last fall, the planet is on pace for a "catastrophic" 2.7°C temperature rise by the end of this century.
Scientists have repeatedly made the case that averting such dangerous levels of heating requires halting new coal, oil, and gas projects. Ramping up drilling, as Biden has done, defies evidence-based recommendations made by the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and others to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
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