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Biden Approves More Oil and Gas Drilling on Public Lands Than Trump

United States President Joe Biden’s administration has approved more oil and gas permits per month on public lands than Donald Trump did during his first three years in office, according to an analysis released yesterday by Washington, DC-based Public Citizen.

During Biden’s first year in office to date, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management “has approved an average of 333 drilling permits per month,” the Washington Post reports, citing the Public Citizen release. “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.”

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This year’s count “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,” the Post adds.

“From an environmentalist’s point of view, this doesn’t look great for Biden,” Public Citizen lead author Alan Zibel told the Post’s Climate 202 newsletter.

“The president has basically only tried to tackle one side of the climate problem,” added 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn, now an organizer with Build Back Fossil Free. “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.”

Zibel said Team Biden’s performance to date is “understandable”, after U.S. courts blocked his campaign promise to ban oil and gas drilling on public lands. “Permit reviews on legally maintained leases are required by law,” Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry told the Post. “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.”

A White House spokesperson added that “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.” But Interior’s reporting “confirms what we have always known: that this program delivers a bad deal for American taxpayers and that it needs to be reformed.”

Inside Climate News says U.S. environmental groups were “deeply disappointed” late last month when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland published a leasing roadmap that raised the fees fossils must pay for extracting resources on public lands, but changed little else.

“Our biggest criticism is simply that it basically ignores the elephant in the room, which is climate change,” said Josh Axelrod, senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nature program.

“We’re at a critical juncture on climate,” he added. “At the very least, it would have been nice to see some recognition of that, even if they didn’t propose any definite policy changes. The lack of it is a major disappointment.”

However, “some observers argue that from a climate perspective, the administration had little to gain and a lot to lose politically by going forward with a ban on new federal leasing at this time,” Inside Climate adds. “Oil and gas from federal lands and offshore has become a smaller portion of U.S. production over the last 18 years, while drilling on private land has soared.”

With mid-term elections Congressional now less than a year away, “a ban on new leasing would not make a significant dent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they say, but it would stir up a political firestorm that would hurt Biden and other Democrats,” especially in swing states New Mexico and Colorado.

“Oil and gas leasing has taken on a symbolic importance far beyond its actual climate value,” said Progressive Policy Institute strategic advisor Paul Bledsoe. Instead of triggering a showdown on leasing, he told Inside Climate the administration may have decided to spend its political capital on more approaches that would deliver more impact, like methane regulations and the transition to electric vehicles.

Even with very limited action on oil and gas leasing, Republicans in Congress are still trying to blame rising energy prices on Biden’s restrictions on fossil production. That claim is “disingenuous”, Public Citizen’s Zibel said.

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