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A drilling field in California

Pump jacks are seen at the Belridge Oil Field and hydraulic fracking site in Kern County, California. (Photo: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Biden Continues Drilling Boom on Public Lands Despite Campaign Pledge, Analysis Shows

"The reality is that in the battle between the oil industry and Biden, the industry is winning."

Julia Conley

Despite pledging as a presidential candidate that he would allow "no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period," President Joe Biden's White House has approved more drilling permits for public lands each month than the Trump administration, a new analysis shows.

In a report titled Biden's Oil Letdown, released Monday, Public Citizen showed that since Biden took office, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved an average of 333 oil and gas drilling permits per month this year—40% more than it did in the first three years of Trump's presidency.

"Without aggressive government action, the fossil fuel industry will continue creating enormous amounts of climate-destroying pollution exploiting lands owned by the public."

Although one of Biden's first actions as president was to sign an executive order instructing the Interior Department to pause all sales of federal gas leases and review policies related to the federal leasing program, just three months later, the number of monthly permit approvals hit its peak at 652 in April.

"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 Washington Post on Monday.

The administration has claimed it is simply complying with a court order as it continues to approve drilling leases, which last year allowed for the extraction of 246 million tons of coal, 314 million barrels of oil, and 3.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the analysis.

Oil companies and 14 Republican-led states sued over the executive order, claiming Biden was violating a federal law requiring quarterly lease sales, and in June, a federal judge appointed by Trump ruled that Biden lacked the authority to pause leasing and issued a preliminary injunction.

The Biden administration is appealing that decision, but climate action groups say the White House should go further and defer leasing of proposed land parcels.

The BLM, said groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, and Friends of the Earth in October, must "take a hard and comprehensive look at the cumulative climate change impacts of authorizing new leasing, together with committed emissions under lease, and immediately defer ANY sale of new leases... pending demonstration of compatibility with U.S. and global climate goals."

Instead, just after the conclusion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, the BLM moved ahead with an auction of more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas companies, and plans to lease more public lands for drilling purposes in February.

"When it comes to climate change policy, President Biden is saying the right things. But we need more than just promises," Zibel said in a statement. "The reality is that in the battle between the oil industry and Biden, the industry is winning. Despite Biden's campaign commitments to stop drilling on public lands and waters, the industry still has the upper hand. Without aggressive government action, the fossil fuel industry will continue creating enormous amounts of climate-destroying pollution exploiting lands owned by the public."

According to Public Citizen's report, nearly 1,300 metric megatons of planet-heating greenhouse gases are expected to be emitted over the next 12 months as a result of drilling on public lands, demonstrating, as the International Energy Agency warned earlier this year, that "additional oil and gas exploration fields are incompatible with the international goal of limiting the most catastrophic climate harm."

Public Citizen's analysis also shows that even as the Biden administration follows through on part of the executive order issued in January—ordering a report on needed reforms to the leasing program, which was released in late November after being delayed—it is failing to confront the damage that will be done by the drilling.

The Interior Department's report "endorsed much-needed and reforms to the federal oil and gas leasing program but was largely silent on the need to confront the climate pollution caused by oil and gas production on federal lands and waters," Zibel wrote in the analysis.

Public Citizen also showed that Republicans' attempts to blame high gas prices on Biden's work to "keep American energy buried in the ground" are "disingenuous."

The group endorsed reforms included in the Build Back Better Act, currently being negotiated by lawmakers, which would raise federal royalty rates and require competitive bidding for oil and gas leases on federal lands, which would "shrink oil's power over our politicians," according to Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

"In the coming months, energy companies are likely to mount a well-funded campaign to continue business as usual," reads the group's analysis. "Congress and the Biden administration must resist that pressure and push aggressively to move the nation—and the world—away from planet-destroying fossil fuels."

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