On one of his first days in office all the way back in January, Joe Biden signed an executive order pausing new oil and gas leasing on public lands. His administration framed the move as an attempt to “restore balance on public lands and waters” and “invest in [a] clean energy future,” with the president himself saying that “we can’t wait any longer.”
“It’s not time for small measures,” he said before signing. “We need to be bold.”
An avalanche of coverage ran with this framing, using the freeze as part of the basis to declare the Biden administration not just a sharp break from Donald Trump’s four years but a radical, transformational new frontier in US policymaking. It was a “stark contrast” from Trump’s actions laying out a “historic vision for how the United States can once again become a global climate leader,” wrote the press, a “sweeping assault on climate change” that showed he was “serious about cutting the country’s outsized contribution to global warming.”
Yet despite the undoubted symbolic power of Biden’s order, in its more than three months in effect, it’s done little to slow the stream of fossil fuel drilling on public lands. According to statistics from the Bureau of Land Management, from the start of February to the end of April, the administration approved 1,179 drilling permits on federal lands, not far from the four-year high of nearly 1,400 approved over a similar three-month period at the end of Trump’s term.
Meanwhile, according to numbers from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement numbers, that same February-to-April period saw 207 offshore drilling permits approved. This is compared to the 249 offshore permits approved over the three months to Trump’s final day in office.
This isn’t totally surprising. When they weren’t loudly whining about the supposed damage Biden’s lease moratorium would do, the fossil fuel industry privately wiped their collective brow that that was as far as he was willing to go, since, as one industry insider told the Financial Times, “leases are already plentiful — it’s the permitting that matters.” As S&P Global Platts Analytics stated at the time, “the order won’t impact US crude oil and gas production much in the near term because existing leases and drilling permits are not impacted and big producers have ample inventories of undrilled well permits.”
Biden’s move was blunted in advance by not just a surge of more than three thousand applications for drilling permits just before he took office but by the fact that “the oil and gas industry has stockpiled millions of acres of leases on public lands and waters,” in the words of the Department of the Interior. As of March, more than half of the twenty-six million acres of federal lands leased to fossil fuel companies was sitting idle and not yet producing oil or gas, while the figure was nearly 80 percent for the twelve million acres of public waters.
And in any case, “older leases are responsible for most production and revenues on public land,” as the Center for American Progress explained in March. That report, ironically, defended Biden’s pause on the grounds that it wouldn’t do a whole lot to slow production and admonished the industry for “sitting idle” on, and “not creating any revenue or jobs” from, unused leased land they’d acquired from Trump’s mass sell-off of public lands.
“President Biden needs to fulfill this basic promise of candidate Biden and stop oil and gas drilling on public lands,” says Mitch Jones, policy director at Food and Water Watch, who warns this would simply be a “bare minimum.”
Ambitions to Fail
Environmental groups were aware at the time of the largely symbolic nature of Biden’s order and had hoped it signaled more ambitious, wide-ranging actions to come. After all, neither Biden’s campaign climate plan nor the 2020 Democratic platform made any mention of stopping leasing but rather pledged to ban the very permits he’s now approving at a rate rivaling Trump’s.
There’s no question Biden is doing more on the climate crisis than any president in history. But when the last holder of that title brags about turning the United States into the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, that’s not saying much.
“Unfortunately, because Biden looks bold in comparison to past presidents, especially the last one, he gets a pass from many people in the environmental movement on his actual record,” says Jones. “Of course, the planet doesn’t recognize the low bars set by political precedent and the lack of ambition of the established political and media leadership.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s handing out of drilling permits is far from the only sign it’s not taking climate science seriously.
Biden’s infrastructure bill — another subject of lavish praise for the administration and acknowledged, as one commentator put it, to be “the country’s one shot to pass meaningful climate legislation in the next few years, if not in the next few decades” — underspends on climate by trillions of dollars over its eight-year time span. His latest budget significantly increased climate spending to $36 billion, which sounds impressive, until you remember that experts are calling for roughly $1 trillion of annual climate spending for a decade to prevent unspeakable catastrophe. The promise of climate spending worth 1 percent of GDP per year pales in comparison to the 5 percent urged by the Roosevelt Institute, let alone the 37.5 percent of GDP spent by the US government on defense in the final year of World War II.
Despite signing executive orders meant to mandate a “government-wide approach to combat the climate crisis,” the administration is fighting environmental groups to keep alive a controversial Trump-era Alaskan drilling project set to produce one hundred thousand barrels of oil a day for thirty years, rendering Biden’s climate goals irrelevant. For all the praise his early cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline received — which, instead of a bold new step, simply rewound Trump policy back to the status quo when Obama left office — in office, he’s firmly behind keeping the similar Dakota Access Pipeline flowing. And he’s already made a mockery of his own lease moratorium, issuing dozens of leases on federal lands in May that had been sold off by Trump in his final weeks as president.
Report after report after report has warned that if climate change and overexploitation of natural resources aren’t urgently checked — not some, half, or most of the way, but all of the way — there is a good chance our civilizations will begin to unravel in our lifetimes, as civilizations have tended to do throughout history when put under extreme environmental pressures. Ours might be the first to actually have the knowledge, technology, wealth, and foresight to avoid this grim outcome. And yet the Biden administration — potentially this decade’s last chance for the United States to take action on the issue, given political realities — is not really even trying.
That’s not a shock: Biden, after all, only got to the point he’s at now because of relentless pressure from the bottom up. What’s less excusable is the failure by liberal institutions to hold him to account for this planned failure, as the reality of his administration’s inadequacy on climate is drowned out by celebratory headlines and news segments that treat the president as if he’s already won a war he’s barely bothering to fight.
The administration is due to put out its report about the lease moratorium this summer. But there’s no indication of when we’ll see an end to the moratorium on truth-telling about Biden’s climate policy.