American Petroleum Institute Chief Promises to Fight Biden and the Democrats on Drilling, Tax Policy

Mike Sommers, in his annual address, said the oil and gas industry remained essential to America. Will Biden and political leaders agree?

Pump jacks operate at dusk near Loco Hills on April 23, 2020 in Eddy County, New Mexico. Credit: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

Pump jacks operate at dusk near Loco Hills on April 23, 2020 in Eddy County, New Mexico. Credit: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

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It’s a tough time for the nation’s oil and gas industry. Last year was among its least profitable in memory, and companies are bracing themselves for a new president focused on climate change, a Congress controlled by Democrats who increasingly shun their financial support and a world beginning to look past fossil fuels towards a cleaner energy future in which they will become smaller players, if not obsolete.

That was the unspoken backdrop for a speech Wednesday by Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute, who said that his industry was confident about its future and prepared to fight back against policies that President-elect Joe Biden had promised as a candidate, including a halt to new drilling on public lands and the elimination of billions of dollars in industry tax breaks.

Speaking at API’s annual “State of American Energy” event, broadcast by video this year, Sommers asserted that his industry remains an essential part of the nation’s energy sector and economy. He noted that it continued operating throughout the pandemic and produced materials that go into face masks, gowns and other medical equipment. 

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He also offered a point-by-point rebuttal of policies promised by Biden and the Democrats that would limit his industry’s production and pollution, foreshadowing the looming fights they are likely to face as they try to enact a new agenda phasing out fossil fuels.

A prominent part of that platform is Biden’s pledge to halt new oil and gas development on federal lands by ending new leasing or permitting for such projects. Sommers said API would do all it could to fight such a move, including leaning on members of Congress and potentially challenging a ban in court. And he tried to frame the issue not just as a threat to his industry, but to the economy.

“If lawmakers curtail resource development and energy prices spike,” he said, “it’s working people and consumers who will suffer.”

Biden and clean energy advocates have argued that developing renewable energy and retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient can generate millions of new jobs and tax revenues, without the pollution that comes from fossil fuels. 

But Sommers, as part of his presentation, showed a video of a teacher in New Mexico, who warned that if drilling on federal lands were curtailed, her district would be forced to lay-off teachers and increase class sizes. The choice of New Mexico was noteworthy. Federal land in the blue state is home to part of the booming Permian Basin, which also stretches into Texas.

Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, to head the Interior Department, which oversees drilling on federal lands. Haaland, who is Native American, traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux camps to support the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and she has expressed support for halting fossil fuel development on federal lands.

Such a ban would carry enormous symbolic weight, and would likely reduce the nation’s oil and gas output over time, but it is unclear by how much or how fast. The majority of U.S. oil and gas production takes place on state or private land, which would be unaffected and could absorb more activity if federal property is closed. Companies have been stockpiling new federal permits that could enable years of drilling, even with a ban.

Sommers also repeated an argument he first made a year ago that the oil and gas industry has done more than any other to help reduce the nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide when burned than coal, and the fracking boom of the past decade helped many utilities switch power generation from coal to gas, reducing overall emissions.

But a growing body of science has shown that the benefits of that switch are offset partly, if not largely, by emissions of methane, itself a potent greenhouse gas, that came with the boom. While Sommers championed the industry’s efforts to lower the rates of methane emissions per unit of production in recent years, overall emissions of the gas have remained flat because production has increased, according to Environmental Protection Agency data

In many cases, companies drilling for oil have burned off or simply vented the methane directly into the atmosphere, rather than pay to hook up wells to natural gas pipelines. An analysis by the New York Times found that in Texas alone, more gas was wasted this way in 2018 than is consumed annually in Arizona or South Carolina.

API fought efforts by the Obama administration to regulate methane emissions, which the Trump administration repealed. Biden has said he will enact new limits, and Sommers said during a call with reporters after his speech that his group would work with the Biden administration to develop those regulations.

Sommers also said his group would oppose efforts to phase out gasoline and diesel fueled cars and trucks, and would resist any attempts to fund electric vehicle infrastructure such as charging stations, another policy that Biden and Democrats have promised to pursue.

The event was aimed at highlighting key political issues and demonstrating API’s ongoing strength. In addition to the teacher from New Mexico, a union leader in Pennsylvania spoke about the important role that pipeline development has played for his members. 

Another speaker, Benjamin Chavis Jr. said ensuring access to natural gas is critical to providing affordable energy to communities of color. Chavis Jr., who is Black, is the head of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a Black press organization to which API has contributed at least $100,000 since 2016. API could “count us as your partner,” he said. 

Numerous studies have shown that people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately harmed by the pollution from oil and gas development and refining, as well as pollution from vehicles. Biden and Democrats have pledged to place environmental justice issues at the core of their climate platform. The support of unions may also prove critical to whether Biden can enact his proposals to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Sommers made no mention of the invasion of the Capitol building last week in his speech. When asked about it during the call with reporters after the event, he pointed to comments he made to the Washington Post and condemned the violence as an attack on democracy. 

Several oil companies have paused political contributions in recent days, part of a wave of corporate responses to the attack, and Sommers said API would consider lawmakers’ involvement when determining future political giving, though he declined to offer more specifics.

Sommers ended with a promise that his organization would continue to lobby for its interests in Washington, and would rely on what he said were thousands of supporters around the country to back it up. Such talk from the oil industry in the past would have made many politicians shudder. But the industry may not carry the clout it once did.

Oil companies largely bet on the wrong side in the 2020 elections, and have dwindling influence on Democrats. While corporate profits will likely rebound this year as oil prices climb, few people expect they will return to the heady days of a decade ago.

Sommers pleaded the case that the oil industry is still essential. The next few years will show whether political leaders agree.