Facing immense political pressure to address surging energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration on Monday began the process of selling leases for new oil and gas drilling on public lands, a move that will likely increase the nation’s already rising greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s the first time the administration has decided to sell onshore oil and gas leases on federal land, further frustrating activists who hoped to see President Biden finally buckle down on climate policy this year after months of hard compromises and failed legislation.
Since taking office, President Biden has tried to strike a delicate balance when it comes to his environmental and energy agendas, hoping to embody his campaign promise of uniting the nation around bipartisan cooperation. He shut down the Keystone XL pipeline but declined to do the same with Minnesota’s Line 3 replacement pipeline, a nearly identical project in most aspects. He promised to ban new leases for oil and gas on public lands, but didn’t put up a fight when a federal court blocked that decision—and in fact, went on to hold the largest offshore lease deal in history. And he let West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—a conservative Democrat with big ties to fossil fuels—all but dictate the components of the Build Back Better Act, Biden’s flagship climate legislation. That bill would have played a key role in achieving the administration’s goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
So when Manchin blocked Build Back Better last December, many climate activists hoped it would free Biden to take far stronger action on addressing the worsening climate crisis through executive authority and rulemaking.
“The need to appease the West Virginia senator is gone now,” Bill McKibben, a prominent climate activist and founder of the grassroots organization 350.org, wrote in The New Yorker shortly after Manchin said he wouldn’t vote for Biden’s bill. “Using executive authority—and boldly—may be the only way that Biden will get anything done.”
Now as the Biden administration moves forward with its plan to auction nearly 144,000 acres of public land across at least seven states for new oil and gas leases, climate campaigners are complaining that President Biden is continuing to compromise at the expense of his climate agenda. Those auctions will begin this June in New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota and Utah, according to notices posted Monday by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
“The administration is in a tough place, but none of those moves are going to do much in the short term to reduce prices and they will have a long term impact on our climate,” McKibben told me in an email. “It would be a lot better for our climate and a lot smarter politically if Biden clearly placed the blame for prices where it really rests, on Big Oil, and used this moment to help the country break free from fossil fuels.”
While activists are criticizing Biden for not being more aggressive, whom to blame for his climate agenda’s lack of progress is complicated. Manchin’s hold in the 50-50 split Senate bears the lionshare of responsibility for any stalled legislation. In fact, Manchin now appears to be attempting to revive Build Back Better as a way to advance his own agenda of increasing domestic oil and gas production—an idea that has gained traction since the Ukraine war broke out in late February.
Former President Donald Trump’s breakneck pace at appointing federal and Supreme Court judges to the bench is also making it more difficult for Biden to advance his climate goals through regulatory action. When the Biden administration tried to place a temporary ban on new offshore lease sales in January, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana blocked the move. The Biden administration has also proposed placing strict new limits on pollution from cars and power plants, but those rules could be derailed by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court—also the result of Trump appointments.
Biden is also facing intense political pressure from Democrats in Western states, where oil and gas production on federal land make up a significant portion of state revenue, such as New Mexico and Colorado. That pressure has only increased amid the Ukraine war and as midterm elections draw nearer.
New Mexico has quickly become the second largest oil producing state in the country, contributing more than 10 percent of the total U.S. oil output in January, with more than a third of the state’s budget in recent years coming from oil and gas royalties on public lands. That’s forced Democrats there to be far more wary of federal climate policy that could impact the state’s bottom line and jeopardize Democratic seats.
“A typical person here in New Mexico is trying to put food on their table and thinking about how to pay their bills,” New Mexico Rep. Angelica Rubio told POLITICO. “When they hear a [call for an oil] ban, that means an end of the job. My effort as a legislator has been to find what the middle ground is.”
In some ways, the Biden administration has tried to mitigate the potential climate consequences of the new lease sales. The parcels for sale make up 80 percent less land than what was originally nominated by the industry. The administration also raised for the first time in more than a century the federal royalties that companies must pay to drill on public lands, signaling that any future leases won’t necessarily be on the industry’s terms.
“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,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement last week. “Today, we begin to reset how and what we consider to be the highest and best use of Americans’ resources.”
That’s how much the United States increased its exports of liquified natural gas between 2020 and 2021, hitting a record high average of 9.7 billion cubic feet per day. The U.S. could break that record again this year as it increases its exports to Europe in reaction to the Ukraine war.