President Joe Biden has pitched himself as a presidential version of Captain Planet. His campaign climate plan included “banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters.” But a new report shows he’s approving fossil fuel leases on public lands at a faster clip than his climate-denying predecessor, Donald Trump.
The analysis comes from Public Citizen, which found Biden’s Bureau of Land Management approved an average of 336 new fossil fuel drilling permits per month in 2021. That’s more than the average amount approved every year of Trump’s presidency except 2020, and 40% higher than the average approved during Trump’s first year in office. Biden’s 2021 drilling approvals peaked in April when there were 652 approvals. This is happening despite the Biden administration implementing a leasing pause. (It’s been challenged in court, but the legal setbacks don’t mean the administration has to lease land — in theory.)
These sites are significant sources of carbon and methane pollution. According to the report, fossil fuel extraction from public lands produced 246 million tons of coal, 314 million barrels of oil and 3.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2020. All told, the extraction from these federal lands accounts for an estimated 918 metric megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. This is a pretty bleak comparison to Trump, a guy who not only denied climate science but wanted to drill everything in sight.
While 2021 may have seen less drilling approvals than 2020, that figure could shoot back up in 2022 with 740,000 acres of public land already on the leasing docket for 2022. That would add insult to injury; Biden’s Interior Department oversaw one of the largest oil and gas lease auctions in U.S. history last month literally days after the president boasted to world leaders at a United Nations climate conference in Glasgow about his commitment to confronting climate change. The government estimates around 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be developed from the recent sale. All told, those deposits could release 723 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the leas period’s lifetime, according to the Centre for American Progress.
“You promised to address the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves, and in Glasgow, you assured the world that your plans to cut emissions are a fait accompli, not mere rhetoric,” a coalition of more than 250 environmental groups wrote in a letter to administration about that lease sale. “Selling more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development just days after the international climate talks makes a mockery of those commitments.”
Separately, the administration drew the ire of environmentalist groups almost immediately after entering the White House after his administration has supported the Line 3 pipeline that’s slated to pump thousands of barrels of oil through Minnesota’s sensitive wetlands and sites sacred to tribes.
The Biden administration has managed to deliver in some key areas, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and proposing tougher rules to bring down methane emissions. Better still, Senate Democrats are trying to manoeuvre around blockades set up by Sen. Joe Manchin and Republicans to pass Biden’s Build Back Better Act in the near future, which would be the first real climate legislation in 11 years.
But those efforts, which significantly increase investment in renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, only really work if they occur in tandem with winding down the fossil fuel industry. Scientists have found stopping new exploration is the only credible pathway to reducing the risks of catastrophic climate change. Just focusing on adding renewables, though, is like pouring a cup of water on a raging inferno while continuing to lease lands for fossil fuel extraction is like throwing gas on the flames.