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Biden’s New Fossil Fuel Leasing Rule Is a “Massive Climate Failure,” Critics Say

"President Biden is blowing an opportunity to end oil and gas extraction on public land," said a climate campaigner.

Demonstrators chant in front of the White House during a climate march on October 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Years after U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to ban new oil and gas leases on public lands, his administration earned fresh criticism from green groups on Thursday with a proposal to update regulations for the federal fossil fuel leasing program.

The U.S. Department of the Interior unveiled a proposed rule for the outdated fiscal terms of the onshore oil and gas leasing program. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Tracy Stone-Manning said it “aims to ensure fairness to the taxpayer and balanced, responsible development as we continue to transition to a clean energy economy.”

However, advocacy organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity slammed the rule as a “massive climate failure.”

“This is a cowardly proposal that fails the basic climate imperative of ending fossil fuel expansion and phasing out production,” said Taylor McKinnon, the center’s Southwest director. “President Biden is blowing an opportunity to end oil and gas extraction on public land as the world reels from one climate catastrophe to the next. This dangerous plan would ravage more of the landscape with fracking while sealing our fate of increasing megafires, more preventable heat deaths, a shrinking Colorado River, and runaway wildlife extinctions.”

The center is among more than 500 groups that responded to the rule with a letter urging Biden to “rapidly phase down federal fossil fuel extraction and production on public lands” to near-zero by 2030, as part of the global effort to meet the 2015 Paris climate agreement’s 1.5°C goal.

“Any rule that fails to phase out oil and gas production on public lands will sacrifice human lives, ecosystems, and entire species at the altar of fossil fuel corporations and their insatiable quest for profit,” McKinnon warned. “It will be another shameful addition to Biden’s record alongside the Willow project, his thousands of new drilling permits, and his rollback of environmental laws to enable illegal fossil fuel pipelines.”

Biden successfully challenged former President Donald Trump three years ago in part by pledging to take the climate emergency seriously and reverse the Republican’s attacks on the planet. While the Democrat has certainly made some progress, particularly compared with his predecessor, he has also come under fire for failing to live up to what he promised as a candidate.

The BLM’s new proposal comes as both Biden and Trump are running in the 2024 presidential contest and as much of the Northern Hemisphere is dealing with extreme heat intensified by global warming that has been largely driven by fossil fuels.

“Even as record heatwaves bake the country and floods ravage eastern states, the Biden administration continues to cozy up to Big Oil,” said Nicole Ghio at Friends of the Earth. “President Biden can’t be a climate leader unless he addresses the root cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. Turning a blind eye to his broken leasing program proves once again that Biden is content to fiddle away while the world burns.”

As the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) highlighted Thursday, the BLM “telegraphed its modest intentions for the proposed rule in its November 2021 Report on the Federal Oil and Gas Program, which we noted at the time failed to live up to its billing as a ‘comprehensive review’ responding to the climate crisis.”

Several campaigners sounded the alarm over that report, which was produced in response to a Biden executive order. One critic said that “greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it’s OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” a sentiment that was echoed by a WELC senior attorney on Thursday.

“Following months of consecutive climate disasters, the Bureau of Land Management’s determination to rearrange deck chairs instead of deploying lifeboats is deeply disturbing,” said WELC’s Melissa Hornbein. “Coming from an administration that kicked off its tenure with some of the loftiest climate rhetoric of any government on the global stage, Interior’s obdurate reaffirmation of the status quo is staggering.”

Some advocacy groups were more tempered in their responses to the rule, while still stressing the need to end such leasing.

“These changes were badly needed — to put it mildly — and will help make onshore leasing more fair to taxpayers and hold industry accountable for its harms,” said Josh Axelrod, senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agency is aiming to limit leasing to areas with existing development and the most viable resources, and is clarifying how it will implement fiscal reforms in the Biden administration’s historic climate law.”

“But we can’t continue to lease our public lands for fossil fuels while facing climate and biodiversity emergencies — and what is truly key moving forward is for the agency to forge an approach for measuring and mitigating the program’s impact on climate,” Axelrod added.

Public Citizen president Robert Weissman similarly said that “these rules are a welcome change from the long-standing status quo of policies that provide giveaways to the oil and gas industry. Antiquated rules incentivize oil and gas corporations to shirk their obligation to clean up the mess they create, leaving old, rusty wells pocking the national landscape and foisting the cleanup bill on taxpayers.”

“Today’s proposed rules would impose realistic financial requirements on oil and gas corporations to pay for the remediation of old, decrepit wells, as federal law requires,” Weissman pointed out.

“While these rules are helpful, the Biden administration’s proposal continues with the climate-destroying practice of leasing federal lands for drilling, which is entirely out of sync with the administration’s climate goals,” he emphasized. “But as long as drilling exists on public property, corporate polluters should be held to a high standard for operating and cleaning up their wells.”

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