Oil and gas drilling on public lands has jumped in the first six months of the year despite President Joe Biden's freeze on new leases to the fossil fuel industry that has triggered sharp criticism from Republicans.
The Biden administration approved 2,488 drilling permits on public lands through July 13, nearly the same the number the Trump administration approved during its first whole year in office, according to information from an Interior Department database reviewed by POLITICO. At that rate, Biden would oversee the most annual drilling permit approvals since the George W. Bush administration.
The rate of drilling approvals has drawn fresh criticism from some environmental groups who have faulted Biden for not taking dramatic enough action to curb climate change, and could undermine the president's promises to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry. Biden, who campaigned on an outright ban on oil and gas production on public land, placed a pause on new lease sales of public land for drilling upon taking office to reassess the program.
"You can’t be the climate president and drill for fossil fuels," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, a progressive environmental group that has criticized Biden from not moving fast enough on climate change matters. "We elected Biden on a bold climate mandate, and from approving nearly 2,500 drilling permits so far this year, refusing to oppose Line 3, his approval and defense of other major long-term fossil fuel projects like the Willow Project in Alaska, and negotiating down his original climate and jobs commitments with the GOP, Biden has been disappointing and failing young people."
“We can’t fight the climate crisis while continuing to expand fossil fuel extraction," said Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. "President Biden promised to end federal leasing and drilling for good reason. We must hold him to his promise.”
But the high number of drilling permit approvals undercuts arguments by Republicans such as Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso who have claimed the administration’s policies amount to a war on fossil fuel production and have tried to blame it for rising gasoline prices.
A spokesperson for Barrasso's office did not immediately respond to questions.
The White House referred questions to the Interior Department, where a spokesperson declined to comment. The permit numbers were first cited by The Associated Press.
While environmental groups will take their anger out on Biden, the administration may be acting to stem current price increases at the pump while it stifles future lease sales, the source of future production, said Kevin Book, analyst at ClearView Energy.
“Look at the pump price and ask yourself, do you want to get blamed for stopping drilling?” Book said. “Gasoline prices are about today. Permitting is about today. Leasing is about tomorrow.”
The Biden administration is already overseeing a rise in oil production in states such as New Mexico and Montana, where much of the production is done on public land. Oil production, recovering from lows last year as economic shutdowns stemming from Covid-19 cut into travel, is now roughly in line with where it was in 2018 and heading to where it was before the pandemic, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.
Oil production in New Mexico, concentrated heavily on public land, hit an all-time record of 1.17 million barrels a day in April, overtaking North Dakota to become the second largest oil-producing state after Texas. The Biden administration approved nearly 1,300 permits to drill in New Mexico, half of the overall total it approved for the entire United States.
New Mexico's Democratic lawmakers had reached out to the White House earlier this year to warn against the fiscal hit the state would take if it cracked down on oil production on public land.