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

This article by Maxine Joselow first appeared in The Washington Post on December 6, 2021

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.”

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