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"Banning new development of oil and gas on federal lands would be significant for the climate and the protection of some of our most treasured historical sites and national parks," wrote Food & Water Watch's Mark Schlosberg. (Photo: SMelindo/flickr/cc)

"Let's Turn This 'Temporary Halt' to Permanent Ban": Biden Praised for Pause on Drilling Leases

"The federal oil and gas program is nothing but an injustice," said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.

Andrea Germanos

President Joe Biden signaled his intention Wednesday to follow through on a campaign promise with a 60-day pause on new leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The action is one of several climate-related actions the new administration has taken in its first hours.

According to The Hill, the announcement came in a Wednesday memo from Scott de la Vega, who is acting as chief of the Interior Department until Biden's nominee for the post, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, is confirmed by the Senate.

The pause, the outlet reported, "bars the department from pushing ahead with any new leasing or drilling permits. It also blocks any new major mining actions."

Conservation and Indigenous groups had urged Biden to block drilling on public lands and saw Haaland's nomination as hope that "exploitation of public lands by fossil fuel corporations"—and related plant-warming emissions—would be stopped.

The Interior Department's announcement was welcomed by Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media. Henn said Biden must now follow through by turning "this 'temporary halt' into a permanent ban and a plan to phase out all fossil fuel development." 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking Wednesday at the Biden White House's first press conference, suggested that a permanent ban could be forthcoming. Asked if the administration still had a commitment to ending oil and gas leasing on federal lands, Psaki replied, "We do and the leases will be reviewed by our team."

That would be good news for the climate, advocacy group Food & Water Watch's Mark Schlosberg wrote in a blog post earlier Wednesday:

Banning new development of oil and gas on federal lands would be significant for the climate and the protection of some of our most treasured historical sites and national parks. Between now and 2050, new drilling on federal lands could produce the carbon equivalent of 1,000 coal fired power plants at a time when we need to be dramatically reducing our carbon emissions. Further, oil and gas production on federal lands is increasingly threatening some of our most iconic national parks and historic sites including Grand Teton, the Everglades, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Chaco Canyon. 

Leasing of federal land for oil and gas development has increased under [former President Donald] Trump. According to the Wilderness Society Action Fund and the Guardian, his administration has leased 5.4 million acres of public land for oil and gas development—an area the size of New Jersey. Coupled with his gutting of already too weak regulations of the production and transport of oil and gas, Trump's actions have recklessly increased emissions and pushed us even closer to climate chaos.

But just putting a pause on drilling on federal lands would not be enough, said Schlosberg. "After all," he wrote, "over 10 million acres of land were leased under Trump and the last term of Obama-Biden alone, making our efforts to move off fossil fuels all the more difficult." What's necessary, he wrote, is "bold vision and leadership to move the country completely off fossil fuels."

What's more, reporting by Reuters Thursday also suggests climate action advocates may have to wait to break out the champagne:

Biden's pledge would reverse former President Donald Trump's efforts to maximize drilling and mining on federal property. But it will not end production in those areas overnight.

The seven companies that control half the federal supply onshore in the Lower 48 states have leases and permits in hand that could last years. [...]

Representatives at [several major oil] companies did not comment for this article. But several have issued public statements saying they have solid stockpiles of federal permits and an ability to meet tougher emissions regulations expected under Biden. They have also said they can quickly shift drilling to state or private acreage once federal permits dry up.

EOG has said it has at least four years of federal permits. "When it comes to access to federal lands, that's one of the things we're not really worried about in our business. We have a lot of potential outside of federal land, too," Chief Operating Officer Billy Helms said during an investor conference last year.

Conservation groups, meanwhile, continue to pursue legal actions to overturn Trump administration-approved sales of public lands for fracking. One lawsuit filed last week by WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center challenges hundreds of oil and gas leases spanning over 1 million acres in the western U.S. states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

"The federal oil and gas program is nothing but an injustice," Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a Thursday statement. "President Biden needs to put public lands to work for people and the climate, not for the fossil fuel industry." 

Apart from the temporary halt on leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands, immediate climate actions the Biden administration has already been able to take have so far included revoking the presidential permit for Keystone XL Pipeline, pausing leases for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and beginning the process to officially rejoin the Paris climate accord.

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