BILLINGS, Mont. (AP
) — 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's presidency
, highlighting President Joe Biden
's reluctance to more forcefully curb petroleum production in the face of industry and Republican opposition.
According to an Associated Press
analysis of government data, the Interior Department
approved approximately 2,500 drilling permits on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, including more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office on January 20.
, and Utah
each had hundreds of approvals, with New Mexico
having the most.
Last year, Biden campaigned on promises to halt new drilling on federal lands in order to reduce climate-changing emissions
, and his nominee to oversee those lands, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland
, vehemently opposed drilling on federal lands while in Congress
and co-sponsored the liberal Green New Deal
However, the administration's actions on fossil fuels
to date have been more modest, including a temporary halt on new oil and gas leases on federal lands, which a judge
blocked last month, a halt on petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
(ANWR), and the cancellation of the Keystone XL
Because vast reserves of fossil fuels are already leased, these actions had no effect on slowing drilling on public lands and waters, which account for roughly a quarter of US oil production.
The recent rise in gasoline prices to $3 a gallon ($0.79 a liter) or higher in many parts of the country complicates Biden's climate agenda even further; any attempt to limit petroleum production could push gasoline prices even higher, jeopardizing the economy
's recovery from the pandemic
“He’s on a tightrope,” said Parker Fawcett, an energy industry analyst with S&P Global Platts, noting that Keystone and ANWR did not incur significant political costs because they were aimed at future projects.
“Those easy wins don’t necessarily have huge impacts on the market today
,” Fawcett said, adding that “he is definitely backing off taking drastic action that would rock
the market.” “What you’re going to see is U.S. oil production continuing to rebound.”
Haaland has attempted to assuage Republican concerns about potential industry constraints, stating last month at a House
Natural Resources Committee hearing that there was no “plan right now for a permanent ban.”
“We believe that the reality of our economy and the world we live in is that gas and oil production will continue for a long time
,” Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn
Interior Department officials declined to comment further on the permits issued under Biden's administration.
Former President Donald Trump
, a staunch industry supporter, reduced the time it takes to review drilling applications from a year or more in some cases to just a few months.
Companies scrambled to secure drilling rights before the new administration took office, and in December, Trump's final full month in office, agency officials approved more than 800 permits — far more than in any previous month during his presidency.
The pace slowed when Biden took office, due to a temporary order that elevated permit reviews to senior administration officials, but approvals have since rebounded to a level that exceeds monthly figures seen throughout Trump's presidency.
Because of delays in transmitting data from Interior field offices to headquarters, the data obtained by AP from a government database may be subject to change.
If current trends continue, the Interior Department may issue nearly 6,000 permits by the end of the year, the most since fiscal year 2008, when crude prices reached an all-time high of $140 per barrel in June.
According to Fawcett, the industry analyst, decisions on approximately 4,700 drilling applications remained pending as of June 1, implying that approvals are likely to continue at a rapid pace as officials work
through a backlog left over from the Trump administration
Environmentalists who support the administration's climate goals have expressed growing dissatisfaction as prospects for a drilling moratorium fade, claiming that the administration could take executive action to halt new permits but has bowed to Republican pressure.
“Every indication is that they have no plans to actually fulfill their campaign promise,” said Mitch Jones, policy director for the environmental group Food
& Water Watch
, “which will result in continued and increased development of fossil fuels on public lands, which means more climate change
Economists and other experts are skeptical that a permit ban would have much of an impact, arguing that companies could simply shift to private and state lands and continue drilling.
Defenders of the administration argue that it is acting pragmatically in the face of a Senate
split 50-50 between Democrats
, as well as questions about whether the government can legally stop drilling on leases already sold to companies.
This entails foregoing a drilling ban in the hopes of gaining bipartisan support for a massive infrastructure
package that includes clean energy
incentives and other climate-change-related measures.
“It’s a long game.... You have to appease some of those oil and gas state senators,” said Jim Lyons, former deputy assistant secretary of the Interior under Barack Obama
and now an environmental consultant. “It means jobs
back home for thousands of workers. You can’t just pull the plug overnight.”
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