As U.S. President Joe Biden professed Washington’s alleged commitment to decarbonization during the ongoing COP26 climate summit, the White House on Tuesday authorized more fossil fuel pollution — advancing its plan to sell oil and gas leases on public lands even after concluding that the resultant emissions could generate billions of dollars in social and ecological damage.
Environmental advocates denounced the Biden administration’s decision, which came the same day the U.S. rejoined the so-called High Ambition Coalition, as “scientifically ignorant and legally indefensible.”
“While President Biden is talking a good talk on climate action, the reality is his administration is actively working to fan the flames of the climate crisis by selling more public lands for fracking,” Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement. “This isn’t just hypocritical, it’s outright deceitful and it truly calls into question whether the Biden administration’s climate agenda is nothing but broken promises.”
“The truth is, we can’t frack our way to a safe climate,” said Nichols. “With all eyes on Glasgow this week, the Biden administration seems to be turning its back on reality and throwing climate leadership into the toilet.”
Last Friday, the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 245 million acres of public land spanning 12 western states, announced that “its state offices will issue for the first time environmental assessments that factor in the social cost” of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stemming from proposed oil and gas lease sales planned for early 2022, Reuters reported. The news outlet added that “these reports could lead to some leases being removed from consideration or deferred depending on the public comments received.”
However, BLM officials said that “there’s little they can do to prevent the cumulative climate change impacts from burning the fuels,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday. “That’s because they can’t discern the significance of emissions from government-owned fuel reserves versus other sources, officials wrote in newly released documents.”
Although BLM “plans to defer almost 600 square miles of leases in Wyoming and five square miles in Montana… over concerns that drilling could harm wildlife,” AP noted, the agency’s refusal “to cite the costs of climate change as a reason to limit leases” means that it plans to move forward with sales scheduled for early next year in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and other states.
The news outlet pointed out that “similar determinations that U.S. fossil fuel lease sales should not be restricted over global warming concerns were made under former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.”
“This seems to be business as usual,” Nichols told AP. “It flies in the face of scientists finding that any more fossil fuel production is unacceptable and countries need to find ways to limit production.”
Last month, the International Energy Agency reiterated its message that expanding fossil fuel extraction is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century and that the production of clean energy must be scaled up immediately.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the worldwide transition to renewable energy is far behind schedule — with fossil fuel use projected to increase this decade even as annual reductions in coal, oil, and gas production are necessary to avert the worst consequences of the climate emergency.
If countries — starting with the rich polluters most responsible for exacerbating extreme weather — fail to rapidly and drastically slash GHG emissions, UNEP warned, the planet is on pace for a “catastrophic” 2.7°C of heating this century.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that roughly 25% of the nation’s total carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and according to the U.S. Interior Department, the social costs of burning oil and gas obtained by drilling and fracking on government-owned parcels — including rising sea levels, extreme weather disasters, and adverse public health effects — range from $357 million to over $4 billion.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s proposal to open up 734,000 acres, or more than 1,000 square miles, of public lands to fossil fuel extraction could unleash up to 246 million tons of GHG pollution — equivalent to the annual emissions of 62 coal-fired power plants.
That’s why, as Common Dreams has reported, critics have called the president’s plan “insane policy in light of the climate crisis,” and a coalition of nine environmental groups has filed formal objections with the BLM.
WildEarth Guardians, a member of that coalition, noted Tuesday that BLM’s move — which violates Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to ban federal sales of new oil and gas leases — “comes even as millions of Americans have called for an end to fossil fuel production,” which culminated in a recent week of action, during which Indigenous rights and climate justice advocates engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House.
BLM’s decision to proceed with its planned lease sales coincided with Tuesday’s unveiling of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules to reduce methane emissions. The EPA’s proposed strategy for curbing the potent GHG is inadequate, warned progressive critics, including Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones, who said that “the best regulation against methane emissions is to ban fracking.”
As WildEarth Guardians explained, “the Biden administration’s plans to sell more public lands for fracking also come on the heels of numerous court rulings holding Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leasing to be illegal, including a ruling last month out of Colorado.”
In January, Biden issued an executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing in order to give administration officials time to conduct a comprehensive review of the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.”
However, the Interior Department began taking steps to resurrect its oil and gas leasing program in August. That move came in response to a June court ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge who sided with a group of Republican attorneys general that sued the Biden administration in March over its temporary pause on new lease sales for public lands and waters.
Progressive critics have argued that the federal judge’s injunction does not require the Interior Department to resume oil and gas leasing. Biden administration officials, experts say, still have the regulatory authority to limit new lease sales.
“The Bureau of Land Management is lying to the American public, claiming they’ve been compelled by a court to sell public lands for fracking,” said Nichols. “The fact is they have absolutely no legal basis to move forward with more oil and gas leasing.”
Earlier this year, WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center challenged federal oil and gas leasing by filing suit over the sale of more than one million acres of public lands for fracking in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
“Frankly, we’re sick of going to court to defend the climate, but if President Biden continues to reject the law, the science, and the public, then we’ll have no choice,” Nichols added. “We hope the administration reconsiders these latest plans to sell public lands for fracking, but we will not hesitate to fight back to protect our planet and our future.”