Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

Biden Issues More Gas and Oil Drilling Permits Than Trump in His First Year

In the Gulf of Mexico, still recovering from an estimated 134 million gallons of oil spilled by BP in 2010, the Biden administration has leased record-breaking off-shore drilling rights to 33 gas and oil companies including Exxon-Mobil, BP, Shell, and Chevron.

Biden came to the presidency promising swift action on climate change. A year in office, it is critical to see what he has accomplished beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement.

Environmentalists condemned the auction of the off-shore drilling rights in the Gulf.

Despite campaign promises to halt gas and oil drilling on public lands, Biden has issued more drilling permits on federal lands than Donald Trump did in his first year. In the Gulf of Mexico, still recovering from an estimated 134 million gallons of oil spilled by BP in 2010, the Biden administration has leased record-breaking off-shore drilling rights to 33 gas and oil companies including Exxon-Mobil, BP, Shell, and Chevron. The 308 leased tracts in the Gulf cover 1.7 million of more than 80 million acres that the administration opened to auction in November 2021, the largest lease sale in the history of the country.

While it is true that Biden issued a moratorium on gas and oil drilling on public lands in his first month in office, it was blocked in federal court. Attorneys general from 13 Republican states--led by Louisiana--successfully challenged the moratorium, effectively blocking it. U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee, ruled that the states would suffer job losses and other injury if the moratorium remained in force. He ordered the Biden administration to go forward with lease sales. Though the Interior Department appealed Doughty's decision, it nevertheless held the lease sales in November.

Environmentalists condemned the auction of the off-shore drilling rights in the Gulf. Representing environmental interests, Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy warned that "[The auction of the Gulf lease sales is] basically a giveaway to industry of millions of acres of the Gulf of Mexico so they can lock in production for years, at a time when we need to be shifting away from fossil fuel development." Other critics, including some Democrats, said that the administration should have reviewed how the sale would affect climate change and held off the sale while the ruling was under appeal.

The November sale of leases in the Gulf came on the heels of the Glasgow COP26 negotiations to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Glasgow, president Biden acknowledged the gravity of climate change and the international community's need to act quickly: "This is a decisive decade in which we have an opportunity to prove ourselves...if we commit to doing our part of each of our nations with determination and with ambition. That's what COP26 is all about."

Yet the Gulf leases make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach the administration's stated goal of limiting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 50-52 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. Drilling gas and oil in the Gulf makes up 20 percent of the carbon released on leased federal lands and waters. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the U.S. discharged 6,558 metric tons of carbon in 2019, roughly 15% of the total world CO2 emissions.

Even the economics of climate change calls for swift action. According to energy researchers at Princeton University, it will cost between $7.8 trillion and $13.9 trillion to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To get to a total of $10 trillion investment over this period the government needs to spend roughly $370 billion a year on clean energy. In his Build Back Better bill Biden proposed $555 billion to combat climate change over the rest of the decade. But Senator Joe Manchin objected to the money for clean energy, forcing Biden to cut the monies for mitigating the worst effects of climate change. With an estimated personal investment of $1-5 million in his coal brokerage business and hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to his office by energy corporations, Senator Manchin refuses to support any appropriations for clean energy. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. If left unchecked, the cost to the nation of greenhouse gases may total $14.5 trillion by 2070, according to Deloitte, an organization that tracks the global carbon footprint.

In late January 2022, the Biden administration's sale of Gulf gas and oil leases was roundly rejected in court. Federal judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the Biden administration had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in the sale of leases for 80 million acres in the Gulf. He canceled the sales, ruling that the administration had not sufficiently considered the sales' effect on climate change. Environmental groups also fault the Interior Department for using an outdated analysis that found that no greenhouse gases would be emitted from the production of oil and gas in the Gulf. They call for a new analysis that examines the broader impact of burning these fossil fuels on climate change. They point out that 25 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions are from burning fossil fuels produced on public lands and in federal waters. Judge Contreras also ruled that the auction of lease sales in the Gulf violated the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act. It stipulates that the government must consider the environmental impact of drilling and construction projects before it auctions off leases.

According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration nevertheless plans to auction off 200,000 acres to the fossil fuel industry in western states by the end of March. An additional 1 million acres of lease sales in the Cook Inlet in Alaska will also be auctioned off after the March sale. These sales egregiously contradict Biden's campaign promise of "no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period."

The fossil fuel industry, for its part, argues that the added production in the Gulf will keep down gas and oil prices and contribute to the nation's energy security. This argument is politically palatable to an administration now wary of inflation, criticism from Republicans and upcoming interim elections. At the same time, though, the fossil fuel industry's assessment ignores the science of climate change. If greenhouse gases are not dramatically curbed, climate change models predict that average global temperature will rise 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) over the rest of the century while scientists generally agree that an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) must be the goal to avoid the most catastrophic climate events.

The U.S. and the global community of nations must adopt clean energy standards as soon as possible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2021 report illustrates how imperative immediate action is. In this report, the sixth assessment it has issued since 1988, it highlights five essential observations based on scientific review of the growing body of literature on climate change:

  • Climate change is indisputably human-caused
  • 2010-2020 was the hottest decade in 125,000 years
  • Certain changes we've already seen are irreversible
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are the leading cause of climate change
  • Climate events are increasing in severity and number in any region of the planet.

Frequent natural disasters in the U.S. have been on an upward trend since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the first decade of record-keeping (1980-1990) the total cost of natural disaster was about $700 billion, or $70 billion in annual average. In the most recent decade (2010-2020), however, the costs have escalated to roughly $2,900,000,000. These calculations make it quite clear that natural disasters in the U.S. may soon equal Biden's proposed clean energy expenditures of $555 billion.

It is clear that the Biden administration must use all of its resources to lower our nation's carbon footprint. Aggressive executive action is warranted at this point. The Gulf lease sales must be canceled. New fees on the worst polluters could significantly diminish greenhouse gases. It is also imperative that the fossil fuel industry's tax breaks be revoked. Climate change is the most significant challenge facing the U.S. and world in the 21st century. Biden must take this message to the people of the United States. Progressives in Congress must continue pressuring the executive branch to restore the funding through any means possible.

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