BILLINGS, Mont. — Approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on public lands in the United States are on track to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president this year, underscoring President Joe Biden’s reluctance to act more forcefully against petroleum production in the face of the industry and Republican opposition.
According to an Associated Press examination of government statistics, the Interior Department issued roughly 2,500 licenses to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year. Since Biden assumed office on January 20, he has approved almost 2,100 drilling permits.
The states with the most approvals were New Mexico and Wyoming. Hundreds of people were killed in Montana, Colorado, and Utah.
Last year, Biden ran on promises to halt new drilling on federal lands in order to reduce climate-changing emissions. While in Congress, his nominee to manage such areas, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, was a staunch opponent of drilling on federal lands and a co-sponsor of the liberal Green New Deal.
However, the administration’s actions on fossil fuels so far have been modest, including a judge-ordered temporary halt to new oil and gas leases on federal lands, a ban on petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and the cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
Because enormous fossil fuel deposits are already leased, these measures had little effect on the drilling on public lands and waterways, which account for roughly a quarter of US oil output.
The recent spike in fuel costs to $3 a gallon ($0.79 a liter) or more in many parts of the country has complicated Biden’s climate agenda even more. Any move to curtail petroleum output may drive up fuel costs more, jeopardizing the pandemic’s economic recovery.
“He’s on a tightrope,” said S&P Global Platts energy analyst Parker Fawcett, noting that the Keystone and ANWR pipelines did not come with high political costs because they were aimed at future projects.
“Those simple wins today don’t always have enormous market impacts,” Fawcett added. “He’s taking a step back from executing a risky move that may destabilize the market….” What you’ll see is that oil output in the United States will continue to rise.”
Republican concerns about future restrictions on the sector have been addressed by Haaland. Last month, she told the House Natural Resources Committee that there was no “strategy right now for a permanent ban.”
Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, “Gas and oil production will continue long into the future, and we think that is the reality of our economy and the society we live in.”
Interior officials declined to comment further on the permits issued during Biden’s tenure.
The Interior Department shortened the time it takes to examine drilling applications from a year or more in certain situations to just a few months under previous President Donald Trump, a fervent industry advocate.
Before the new administration took office, companies scrambled to secure drilling rights. In December, Trump’s final full month in office, agency officials authorized over 800 permits, considerably higher than in any other month of his presidency.
Under a temporary order that escalated permit evaluations to top administration officials when Biden first entered office, the pace slowed. Since then, approvals have risen to a pace that exceeds monthly figures recorded during Trump’s administration.
Because of delays in sending data from Interior field offices to headquarters, the data received by AP from a government database is susceptible to change.
The Interior Department may issue close to 6,000 permits by the end of the year if current patterns continue. The last time this many were issued was in the fiscal year 2008 when crude prices soared to an all-time high of $140 a barrel in June.
According to Fawcett, the industry analyst, around 4,700 drilling applications were still outstanding as of June 1, implying that approvals will continue at a rapid pace while authorities work through a backlog left over from the Trump administration.
Environmentalists who support the administration’s climate aims are becoming increasingly frustrated as prospects for a drilling moratorium dwindle. They claim that the administration could take administrative action to prohibit new permits from being issued, but that it has bowed to Republican pressure.
Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said, “Every indication is they have no intentions to really deliver their campaign promise.” “As a result, fossil fuel extraction on public lands will continue and expand, resulting in further climate change.”
Economists and other professionals have expressed reservations about the implications of a permission restriction. Companies may easily move their drilling operations to private and state properties, according to University of Chicago assistant dean Ryan Kellogg.
Defenders of the administration argue that it is being realistic in the face of a 50-50 split in the Senate and doubts about whether the government can legally prohibit drilling on leases that have already been leased to corporations.
That means abandoning a drilling moratorium in the hopes of gaining bipartisan support for a massive infrastructure package that includes renewable energy subsidies and other climate-related measures.
“It’s a lengthy game,” says the narrator. “You’ve got to placate some of those oil and gas state senators,” said Jim Lyons, an environmental consultant who served as deputy assistant secretary of the Interior under Barack Obama. “It means thousands of people will be able to return home to work. You can’t merely turn out the light.”