Nothing Fundamental Has Changed: Biden Administration Greenlights More Fossil Fuel Drilling Permits in 2021 for Public Lands and Waters than Did Trump in 2017

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

As he moves into his second year as President, it seems the only promise Joe Biden has made good on is his pledge that “Nothing fundamental will change.”

This promise even applies to policies on climate change where voters might have expected Biden to pursue initiatives that curtailed expansion of the oil and gas industry. No such luck. Instead, Biden seems to be following in the footsteps of the last Democratic president, who proudly and publicly took credit for the oil and gas boom. Positively gloated. And if you don’t believe me, watch the video clip contained in this post, which I posted – again! – less than a fortnight ago (U.S. Interior Department Moves to Block Some Oil and Gas Leasing on Alaska’s North Slope).

The Biden Fossil Fuel Record: Full Speed Ahead for Drilling on Public Lands

Although I lrecently lauded the new administration’s rollback of Trumpian excesses, that’s far from the full story.

Let’s examine closely this Common Dreams article from Friday, Biden Outpaced Trump on Drilling Permits in First Year:

Despite President Joe Biden’s promise to phase out federal leasing for fossil fuel extraction, his administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first year than the Trump administration did in 2017.

That’s according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s new analysis of federal data released Friday, which shows that the Biden White House rubber-stamped 3,557 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in 2021—a 34% increase over former President Donald Trump’s administration, which greenlit 2,658 drilling permits in its first year.

Of the drilling authorized by the Biden administration in the past year, almost 2,000 permits were approved for public lands in New Mexico, followed by 843 in Wyoming, 285 in Montana and North Dakota, and 191 in Utah. In California, Biden signed off on 187 permits—more than twice as many as the 71 that Trump approved for drilling on the Golden State’s public lands during his first year in office.

“Biden’s runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Taylor McKinnon said Friday in a statement. “Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires ending new fossil fuel extraction, but Biden is racing in the opposite direction.”

Now, it seems that Biden initially intended to suspend fossil fuel drilling on public lands. At least he said so, and issued an executive order to implement just such a pledge.

But when faced with entirely predictable pushback from Republican attorney generals challenging the policy, the legal whizkids at the Department of Justice essentially rolled over and signed off on the administration approving fossil fuel permits as if Trump had won, rather than lost, the 2020 election.  Why do I say “predictable pushback”? Well, because these same AGs have challenged climate change policies in federal court before. Republicans are good at doing that: they’re absolutely ruthless in enacting legal and political initiatives that further their policy goals. So, one might hope that by this stage, Democrats might realize these AGs aren’t going anywhere – and perhaps try to come up with independent fossil fuel policies that aren’t a mere rubber stamp of a drill baby drill agenda. Alas, expecting Democrats to govern effectively – and follow through on implementing a change in climate change policy – is I guess too much to ask.

Per Common Dreams for more details:

One year ago, Biden issued an executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing. The president’s pause of the federal leasing program was meant to give the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) time to conduct a comprehensive review of the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.”

However, a group of Republican attorneys general awash in $4.5 million of campaign cash from the fossil fuel lobby sued the Biden administration in March, arguing that its moratorium violated a federal law requiring quarterly lease sales. In June, a Trump-appointed federal judge sided with them and issued a preliminary injunction.

While the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the ruling—and ultimately said in August that the judge’s decision to invalidate the pause does not compel the Biden administration to immediately resume new fossil fuel lease sales—the DOI backed down and took steps to resurrect the then-frozen oil and gas leasing program.

In November—just days after Biden professed Washington’s alleged commitment to decarbonization at the COP26 climate summit—the White House held Lease Sale 257, an auction condemned as ecologically irresponsible for offering up 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed to the highest-bidding oil and gas companies.

Despite Biden’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of this decade, his administration also plans to allow fossil fuel corporations to purchase drilling rights for hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis in both bolded passages.]

Remind me again who won the 2020 election? Because with respect to fossil fuel drilling on public lands, it sure seems to me that indeed, nothing fundamental has changed. This despite at least some administration officials being aware that there are alternatives to blind continuation of the Trumpian trend. But while there’s in theory awareness of other  such possibilities in theory, the reality is this administration continues to rubber stamp drilling permits, Again over to Common Dreams:

As Food & Water Watch explained last month, the Biden administration has “acknowledged that it has many other legal mechanisms to prohibit new oil and gas leasing aside from” the disputed moratorium, which undermines its claim that “its hands were tied” by a right-wing judge.

Because, guess what: the Trump administration efficiently installed lots of right-wing judges, and not just at the level of the Supreme Court. So, if this administration intends to get serious on implementing any climate change agenda, it must come up with a plan for dealing with such jurists. Throwing up one’s hands and blaming the mess on the right-leading judiciary isn’t a solution.

What might that look like. This Common Dreams article, 360+ Climate Groups to Biden: Phase Out Fossil Fuels on Public Lands, outlines a starting point:

More than 360 climate and rights groups filed a legal petition Thursday that calls on the Biden administration to utilize its executive authority to phase out federal oil and gas production on public lands and oceans.

The groups say the petition offers a lifeline to the planet amid the climate crisis and a direct pathway to reverse President Joe Biden’s “catastrophic failure of climate leadership.”

The petition submitted to Biden and the Interior Department outlines a framework for drawing down oil and gas production by 98% by 2035 through executive action using the statutory provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.

“The natural place to start phasing out climate-destroying oil and gas production is on our public lands and oceans, and Biden has the authority to do so. If the U.S. leads, the world will follow. Biden must keep his promise to end federal oil and gas extraction,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

Citing overwhelming scientific consensus—the petition calls on Biden to immediately cease approval of all new fossil fuel production and phase out nearly all existing fossil fuel production—to avert the most catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis.

The Bottom Line

So, it’s not just the administration’s public health team that’s flailing out in the deep end, clearly overwhelmed by the state of the pandemic and with no plan for trying to navigate safely to shore.

Anyone who’s been paying attention is aware that the planet is in deep trouble. We’re well past the stage where climate change must be confronted Fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters currently accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Despite its wan promises in Glasgow, this administration continues to allow such production to expand. I think I preferred the Trump policy. At least in that case, the enemy was clear, and the message wasn’t muddled.  –

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  1. Librarian Guy

    What else do we expect from the Dems? Entirely predictable!! They feint a tiny bit “left” to get elected, then continue the policies of their (minority in voter #s) betters, the R’s. Another sterling example was faux “hope & change” Obama– when he debated “Angry Grandpa” McCain, the Maverick said it’d be great if the US kept forces in Afghanistan for “100 years”!! Obama demurred on that . . . then once in office, he did a failed “surge” there to look “tough” like the Rs (who still didn’t respect him, wouldn’t even take his Grand Bargain to gut Social Security) and kept us IN his entire term . . . we made it to 20 years anyway, if not a century. Ironic that 2 of the worst backward demagogues of the US political class, Trump & Biden finally ended that farce!! Anyway, people voted for O thinking he’d reverse Bush policies. As many noted, his policies were mostly a continuation of Cheney’s admin, 3rd and 4th terms (& Barack and Michelle looovve “W”, tried and continue to try rehabilitating his reputation). . . & shambling Grandpa Joe’s policies are just the 2nd term of Trump before they usher him back into power!! Wall Street always gets 100% of what they want, voting is pure sham at this point.

  2. Synoia

    The US political system is dependent on each Congress Person, House and Senate, raising about $2,000,000 every 2 years.

    That’s the underlying issue. Money rules.

    It is inconceivable that the politicians are other than dependent on, and beholden to, the people paying these bribes.

    For bribes they are. Very effective bribes.

  3. redleg

    I’m curious to see the specifics of the leases.
    If Trump’s were for broad swaths of land, while Biden’s are for very specific drilling sites, the effect could be more restrictive even though more leases were issued.
    Further, if Trump’s were for previously undrilled areas, and Biden’s are for the expansion of areas that are already pumping, the number of leases would not necessarily be the best measure of impact.

    I fully expect Biden and the Dems to be as bad as the GOP regarding this issue, IMO worse due to Dems’ skill at collectively talking through their hat, in addition to their refusal to issue a moratorium, but these possible differences need to be assessed before declaring one team worse than the other.

  4. BeliTsari

    Heck, I’d remembered, lots of folks agreeing that Hills would’ve fracked 3-5 times as many wells in the Marcellus than Obama & saved Tar Sands bitumen, new LNG terminals, bailed out 97 ancient nuclear plants… NYC would be burning dilbit in our peaking plants, Pittsburgh would resemble Mordor, from ethane well blowouts, failed cement-jobs, annulars, casing and 48″ Indian/ Russian mill pipelines, all failing from “subsidence!” Kerry would’ve been worse. Biden is simply a finger-puppet for oilgarchs, he no longer recognizes? We ain’t seen nothing yet, kids?

  5. Keith McClary

    In order to meet climate targets, a lot of O&G must stay in the ground. The plan is, that won’t be American O&G.

  6. earlkirkman

    How amazing that monetizing of our demise continues with such vigor. We will continue to see so many unforeseen calamities. methane and sea levels, oh my! Where does DC go, or NYC, MIA?

  7. Oh

    Slippery Joe and his backers have been fully bribed by the Oil companies. They don’t care about climate change or anything that would harm the general population. They only care about the money. What crooks. I hope people realize that both parties are bought and paid for by the yuuuge corporations.

  8. Solarjay

    The list is really long about what this administration hasn’t tackled. As I try to find a common element it appears to me to always revolve around big biz, IE big biz gets what it wants most of the time.

    Big oil, yep sure you get what you want.
    We’ll allow more and more fracking so you can sell LNG/LPG overseas. Check
    Medical insurance, yes more to you
    Drug companies, yes we’ll pay you whatever you want
    Student loans, don’t worry banks we won’t stop the money train.
    Financial sector, do what you want
    Military equipment companies, yes more to you
    Telecoms, yes more to you ( 5G issues no worries)
    Amazon, don’t worry about oversight
    And add your own as the list is really long.

    The 3 largest examples to me of that capture of our political system are the 2008 financial crisis ( who did and didn’t get bailed out) and the current pandemic and not being able ( not like they even tried) to make the vaccines open source and now watching manchin and Sinima stop pretty much everything and the Dems are “unable” to persuade them, right ok sure.

    If this observation is at least partially correct I don’t see how this changes?

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