By: Chad Shmukler
Not long after taking office, the incoming Joe Biden administration was treated to a shower of media praise in response to the Interior Department’s announcement that it would halt new oil and gas leasing on public lands.
Some conservation and environmental groups lauded the move, claiming it would have significant impacts, such as “improv[ing] the health of our communities, our climate and our wild places.”
Overwhelmingly, coverage favored rose-tinted glad-handing and dispensed with the facts—namely that the administration’s move was mostly symbolic, temporary in nature, and would have no impact whatsoever on the enormous surplus of oil and gas leases already existing on public lands.
In truth, there was no reason to believe, let alone report, that it would have any meaningful impact on fossil fuel production on U.S. public lands.
A BROKEN PROMISE
Months later, the administration has not only laid bare the empty reality of its January move, but it has also proceeded to approve new oil and gas permits on public lands at a staggering pace.
According to a recent analysis of government data by the Associated Press, the Biden administration has approved roughly 2,500 new drilling permits and is on pace to approve roughly 6,000 permits by year’s end.
That number of approvals for new fossil fuel production on public lands would eclipse anything seen during the Trump years and would be the highest number of new permits issued in one year since 2008, during the Bush administration.
Lest the administration’s actions are misconstrued as administrative backlog-clearing after which the Interior Department can implement its desired agenda, in June Biden’s much-celebrated Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland told lawmakers that the Biden administration had no plan to make permanent its highly touted halt of new oil and gas leasing on public lands.
During a meeting of the Natural Resources Committee, Haaland said, “I don’t think there is a plan right now for a permanent ban,” adding that “gas and oil production will continue well into the future.”
CARRYING INDUSTRY’S WATER
This flood of fracking and oil drilling approvals has come amidst a rash of other pro-fossil fuel signals and actions from the Biden administration which have become increasingly difficult for media outlets and environmental and conservation groups to ignore.
In May, the administration went to court to fight for the right to frack 40,000 acres of National Forest land in Ohio. Last year, a judge stalled the project, ruling that the government had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to adequately assess the environmental impacts of the project.
Rather than complete a new environmental impact analysis, Biden’s BLM and USFS decided to appeal the ruling. Later that same month, the administration pushed forward a plan to drill for oil just outside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah—even after that same plan had been remanded for additional analysis by the Trump administration due to the perceived need for more extensive environmental review.
High-level administration officials have also been quoted recycling fossil fuel industry talking points that denigrate regulatory solutions and tout non-existent technologies. Climate Envoy John Kerry recently told a group of financial industry insiders that “No government is going to solve” climate change, and that the world should look to the private sector and to a “race to the new technology” for answers to the looming crisis.
Biden’s Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, has talked about potentially including zero-emission natural gas, which doesn’t exist, in upcoming clean energy standards. Granholm also recently touted carbon-capture technology as a way to “ramp up” oil and gas production, rather than a way to decarbonize existing facilities until they can be taken offline.
FIGHTING FOR TRUMP-ERA FOSSIL FUEL PROJECTS
Biden’s team also recently opposed a lawsuit put forth by environmental groups which aim to put a stop to the massive ConocoPhillips Willow Project on Alaska’s North Slope. Once online, the project is expected to produce 100,000 barrels of oil per day for at least the next 30 years.
According to The Guardian’s reporting on the Biden administration’s defense of the Willow Project, “The Arctic is heating up at three times the rate of the rest of the planet and ConocoPhillips will have to resort to Kafkaesque interventions to be able to drill for oil in an environment being destroyed by the burning of that fuel.
The company plans to install ‘chillers’ into the Alaskan permafrost, which is rapidly melting due to global heating, to ensure it is stable enough to host drilling equipment.”
Though the plaintiffs claim the project poses a threat to the delicate arctic environment where the drilling is planned and that its enormous new output of fossil fuels is incompatible with the ongoing climate crisis, the Biden administration argued in a recent brief that these claims were “cherry-picked” and recommended that the court reject the plaintiffs’ case and rule in favor of ConocoPhillips.
The administration has also taken legal action to keep the much-maligned and highly controversial Line 3 pipeline—which will bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands, one of the world’s dirtiest forms of fossil fuels, per day from Canada to Wisconsin—moving forward.
The almost-finished pipeline is facing a lawsuit filed by indigenous and environmental groups, which seeks to block a crucial, final stage of the project.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Moneen Naismith, an attorney with one of the plaintiffs, said “We were hoping that if the Biden team is going to be real about their commitments that they’ve made in the executive orders that they have issued since coming into the office on climate, on tribal issues, on environmental justice, that, at a minimum, they weren’t going to come out with a full-throated, doubling-down defense of the Trump administration’s previous decision … Unfortunately, that’s what we saw last night in their filing.”
MEET THE NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
Joe Biden’s election win over Donald Trump was secured in large part by young voters, whose support in crucial battleground states propelled the former Delaware senator to victory.
Those ballot-casters, many of which supported progressive stalwart Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, flocked to Biden based on campaign promises specifically designed to placate those voters, such as a public option for health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, the end to the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies, a minimum of $10,000 in student loan debt forgiveness, and meaningful action to combat the looming and ongoing climate crisis.
More than six months into the Biden presidency, with none of the aforementioned campaign promises fulfilled or even approaching fulfillment, the administration’s defenders preach patience.
Given the nation’s increasing political dysfunction, the pervasive unwillingness of the GOP to partner on any form of legislation designed to improve the lives of everyday people, and the ongoing Manchin-Sinema sideshow, Americans might be compelled to temper their criticism of the still somewhat newly hatched Biden administration.
But even a cursory examination of the administration’s record rather than its rhetoric, such as the one provided here, reveals not failures, botched attempts, or good faith efforts blocked by political realities, but a slew of pro-industry actions and policy-making that run directly counter to the administration’s campaign promises.
If 6,000 new drilling permits on public lands, fighting for dirty Trump-era oil and gas projects, and recycling pro-fossil fuel industry talking points are the Biden administration’s version of climate policy, Americans will need to look elsewhere for meaningful action on climate change.
This story originally appeared in Hatch Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.