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Biden Is Offering “Trivial Changes” to Oil and Gas Leasing Policy, Critics Say

A new Interior Department report about leasing public lands and waters has left climate campaigners fuming.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland introduces President Joe Biden during a Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 2021.

Climate campaigners and other progressive critics on Friday called out the Biden administration for a new U.S. Interior Department report about leasing public lands and waters to oil and gas companies, slamming its proposals as far too weak given the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The report — prepared in response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14008 — recommends adjusting royalty and bonding rates, prioritizing leasing in areas with known resource potential, and avoiding regions where drilling conflicts with conservation, historical and cultural resources, recreation, and wildlife habitat.

“Releasing this completely inadequate report over a long holiday weekend is a shameful attempt to hide the fact that President Biden has no intention of fulfilling his promise to stop oil and gas drilling on our public lands,” said Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones in a statement.

Despite the president’s campaign pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing for public lands and waters, the administration last week auctioned off 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. In response to legal action from Republican state attorneys general, a federal judge ruled in June that Biden could not pause new leases.

The administration’s legal obligation to hold lease sales has not stopped climate campaigners from accusing the president of failing to deliver on his promises to tackle the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.

“A minor increase in the royalties paid by climate polluters will have zero impact on combating the climate crisis,” Jones asserted Friday, “and will in effect make the federal government more dependent on fossil fuels as a source of revenue.”

“This shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters is a clear sign that, when it comes to climate action, the White House does not actually mean what it says,” he added.

Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, was similarly critical, according to Reuters.

“These trivial changes are nearly meaningless in the midst of this climate emergency, and they break Biden’s campaign promise to stop new oil and gas leasing on public lands,” said Spivak. “Greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it’s OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland acknowledged the climate emergency in her statement about the report.

“Our nation faces a profound climate crisis that is impacting every American. The Interior Department has an obligation to responsibly manage our public lands and waters — providing a fair return to the taxpayer and mitigating worsening climate impacts — while staying steadfast in the pursuit of environmental justice,” she said. “This review outlines significant deficiencies in the federal oil and gas programs, and identifies important and urgent fiscal and programmatic reforms that will benefit the American people.”

However, as The New York Times noted, “the long-awaited report was nearly silent about the climate impacts from the public drilling program,” which frustrated climate activists.

“We expected the agency to do a programmatic review of the entire fossil fuel leasing program that takes into account not only the environmental harms of drilling at the local and landscape level, but also the impact on the global climate crisis that we’re in,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“And that had never been done before,” Hartl pointed out. “The agency had never taken a cumulative look at the harm that would come from burning the fossil fuels that would come out of these leases. If you wanted to accomplish what the president had promised, this was the best mechanism to achieve that promise.”

As Collin Rees, U.S. program manager at Oil Change International, put it: “Interior’s leasing report reads as if it was written in the 1990s, and does little more than confirm what advocates and other branches of government have been saying for decades.”

“The report is woefully inadequate and contains almost no new insights, despite arriving more than six months later than promised,” he continued. “The government’s royalty rates and bonding requirements are far too low and lead to public money subsidizing Big Oil’s profits while our federal lands and waters suffer egregious harm.”

“But President Biden promised to end the leasing program entirely due to its deadly threat to the climate,” Rees said. “Interior’s recommendations fall far short of that goal and ring particularly hollow days after the largest lease sale in U.S. history.”

“Secretary Haaland and President Biden must end all federal leasing and permits for oil and gas extraction,” he added. “Anything less is unacceptable and a damning failure of their climate promises and responsibility to future generations.”

Kyle Herrig, president of the government watchdog Accountable.US, urged Senate Democrats to follow the lead of their House colleagues and ensure reforms to the leasing program are included in their version of the Build Back Better budget reconciliation package.

“The Interior Department’s report makes it abundantly clear that under the current oil and gas leasing program, taxpayers and the environment are losing out while Big Oil profits handsomely,” he said. “Lawmakers should be prioritizing Americans’ best interests, not wealthy oil and gas companies’ bottom lines.”

“If Congress is serious about combating climate change and protecting our nation’s cherished public lands,” Herrig added, “senators must ensure bold reforms to the nation’s public lands leasing program are included in the Build Back Better Act.”

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