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Biden halts new oil, gas and coal leases on federal lands and waters

Pump jacks in Kern County
The Biden administration ordered a 60-day halt on issuing new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits, as well as new coal mining permits, for federal land and waters. The order doesn’t limit preexisting operations under valid leases.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Biden administration announced Thursday the suspension of new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters, effective for 60 days, as officials moved quickly to reverse Trump administration policies on energy and the environment.

The suspension, part of a broad review of programs at the Interior Department, went into effect immediately under an order signed Wednesday by acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega. It follows President Biden’s campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves to help address climate change.

Under President Trump, federal agencies prioritized energy development and eased environmental rules to speed up drilling permits as part of the Republican’s goal to end reliance on foreign energy supplies and boost domestic production. Trump consistently downplayed the dangers of climate change, which Biden has made a top priority.

The order did not limit existing oil and gas operations under valid leases, meaning activity won’t come to a sudden halt on the millions of acres of lands in the West and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico where much drilling is concentrated. Its effect could be further blunted by companies that stockpiled enough drilling permits in Trump’s final months to allow them to keep pumping oil and gas for years.

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The order also applies to coal mining and blocks the approval of new mining plans. Land sales or exchanges and the hiring of senior-level staff at the agency also were suspended.

An 11th-hour Trump administration proposal foreshadows a tough balancing act for Biden on public lands.

The order includes an exception that gives a small number of senior Interior officials authority to approve actions that are otherwise suspended. Those officials include the agency secretary, deputy secretary, solicitor and several assistant secretaries.

Biden’s move could be the first step toward an eventual goal to ban all leases and permits to drill on federal land. Mineral leasing laws state that federal lands are for many uses, including extracting oil and gas, but the Democrat could set out to rewrite those laws, said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.

The administration’s announcement drew a quick backlash from Republicans and oil industry trade groups. They said limiting access to publicly owned energy resources would mean more foreign oil imports, lost jobs and lower tax revenues.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said the administration was “off to a divisive and disastrous start.” He added that the government is legally obliged to act on all drilling permit applications it receives and that “staff memos” can’t override the law.

“Impeding American energy will only serve to hurt local communities and hamper America’s economic recovery,” American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers said in a statement.

National Wildlife Federation Vice President Tracy Stone-Manning welcomed the move and said she expected Biden to make good on his campaign promise to end leasing altogether, or at least impose a long-term moratorium on any new issuances.

“The Biden administration has made a commitment to driving down carbon emissions. It makes sense starting with the land that we all own,” she said. “We have 24 million acres already under lease. That should get us through.”

After four years of Trump, the question is no longer how much damage the government can do. It’s whether the government is living up to its promises.

Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.

Under Trump, Interior officials approved almost 1,400 permits on federal lands, primarily in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. Those permits, which remain valid, will allow companies to continue drilling for years, potentially undercutting Biden’s climate agenda.

But there are other ways an ambitious Biden administration could make it harder for permit holders to extract oil and gas. “The ability to get your resources out, to get right of way, to get roads, to get supporting infrastructure — not all of that is signed and sealed right now,” Book said.

Under President Obama, the Interior Department in 2016 imposed a moratorium on federal coal leases while it investigated the coal program’s climate effects and whether companies were paying a fair share for extracting resources from public lands. Trump lifted the moratorium soon after taking office.


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