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Environmentalists blast Biden for new federal fossil fuel leasing

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In response to the Department of Interior (DOI) announcement that it will begin issuing sale notices on Monday for new oil and gas leases, climate change activists and Indigenous advocacy groups are castigating President Biden for breaking a key campaign promise. Additional oil and gas drilling will damage local air and water in nearby communities and exacerbate climate change, a coalition of groups said in a statement Friday night following the DOI announcement.

“Candidate Biden promised to end new oil and gas leasing on public lands, but President Biden is prioritizing oil executive profits over future generations,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth.

“Right now, fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters make up a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions at a time scientists are saying we must move urgently to cut emissions by at least half,” said Dan Ritzman, a director at the Sierra Club. “Not only does it devastate our planet, it’s a handout to Big Oil at the expense of average Americans, who will bear the brunt of its societal, health and financial ramifications.”

Joe Biden
President Biden speaking in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“With conservative climate models predicting that we have less than 30 years to radically change our relationship with oil and gas, the future rests in the United States’ hands,” said Siqiniq Maupin, executive director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, an Alaska native advocacy organization. “We can no longer commodify our land and water.”

The lease sale follows an injunction issued by a federal judge in Louisiana, who ruled that Biden’s Jan. 27, 2021, executive order pausing new federal oil and gas leasing violates laws governing federal land management. The DOI plans to auction off oil and gas leases on 145,000 acres of public lands in nine states across the West, the first such sale since Biden took office.

The department is instituting new rules that will apply to this sale and to others, moving forward, that will increase environmental scrutiny and mitigation requirements and raise the below-market royalty rates that DOI has been charging. In November, the DOI issued a report finding that the prior federal fossil fuel leasing program did not get a fair return for taxpayers and didn’t adequately consult surrounding communities. Some environmentalists criticized the report for failing to examine how federal fossil fuel leasing contributes to climate change, but the DOI pledged to factor greenhouse gas emissions into future decisions about where to drill.

“The lease sales will incorporate many of the recommendations in the Department’s report, including ensuring Tribal consultation and broad community input, reliance of the best available science including analysis of [greenhouse gas] emissions, and a first-ever increase in the royalty rate for new competitive leases to 18.75 percent, to ensure fair return for the American taxpayer and on par with rates charged by states and private landowners,” the department said in a statement.

Pump jacks
Pump jacks in Eddy County, N.M. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

“For too long, the federal oil and gas leasing programs have prioritized the wants of extractive industries above local communities, the natural environment, the impact on our air and water, the needs of Tribal Nations, and, moreover, other uses of our shared public lands,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in the same DOI statement. “Today, we begin to reset how and what we consider to be the highest and best use of Americans’ resources for the benefit of all current and future generations.”

An administration official defended the lease sale on a Monday morning background press call rehashing the Biden administration’s environmental agenda in advance of Earth Day.

“This is the direct result of a court injunction,” said the official in response to a question from a reporter about the forthcoming auction. “The secretary of interior still has some remaining discretion, and she has used that discretion to reduce 80% of the areas to lease, to increase the stringency of environmental safeguards and to boost the return to taxpayers."

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to end federal fossil fuel leasing. “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period,” he said while campaigning in New Hampshire in February 2020. But last June’s federal district court ruling in Louisiana, siding with Republican attorneys general from 13 states, overturned that order. In November, the DOI held the largest offshore oil drilling lease auction ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Biden administration is appealing that decision, but climate activists argue that it could fight harder to stave off new lease sales while the appeal is pending. Drew Caputo, vice president for litigation at Earthjustice, told Yahoo News in November that the administration should have sought a stay from the appeals court of the district court order, requested an expedited ruling and withdrawn offshore areas from leasing under the president’s authority using the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

Unused oil rigs sit
Unused oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Fourchon, La. (Lee Celano/Reuters)

Environmental advocates also argued in a lawsuit that the offshore lease auction’s environmental analysis had been done unlawfully. This January a federal judge agreed with them and voided those sales.

Caputo speculated last year that the administration was intentionally not fighting the ruling with every means at its disposal because “they’re, I think, thinking, ‘Well, we need to give a little' on fossil fuel development” in response to high gasoline prices.

With prices at the pump surging even more since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the White House is certainly doing everything within its power to ease fuel costs. The president has called on oil and gas producers to boost short-term supply by drilling on the 9,000 currently unused federal leases and asked Congress to pass a bill that would assess a fee on unused leases. (American Petroleum Institute president Mike Sommers countered in a statement that “the percentage of producing leases is at a two-decade high.”) In addition to releasing 180 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months, Biden recently lifted a rule that bans gas stations from selling corn-based ethanol during the summer and directed subsidies toward making the biofuel more widely available.

While Republicans and the fossil fuel industry have attacked the president over high gas prices, claiming that the absence of new leases is to blame, energy industry experts say that leases sold, or not sold, since Biden took office have no connection to current oil prices because it takes years for a lease to create production. The administration official on Monday’s press call said, “Leasing that will result in production five or 10 or 15 or 20 years from now is not [a response] to the market we’re seeing now.” Instead, the White House is urging Congress to pass Biden’s proposals for renewable energy production and electric vehicle deployment, which an outside analysis found will reduce U.S. demand for oil by the end of this decade more than twice as much as the amount of oil the United States imports from Russia.

Solar panels
The 100-megawatt MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array in Dry Lake Valley, Nev. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The American Petroleum Institute did not issue a statement about the new leases, nor did it respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. Jeff Eshelman, the chief operating officer of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told the New York Times that the administration is sending a “mixed message.”

“This administration has begged for more oil from foreign nations, blames American energy producers for price gouging and sitting on leases,” Eshelman said. “Now, on a late holiday announcement, under pressure, it announces a lease sale with major royalty increases that will add uncertainty to drilling plans for years.”

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