BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The Biden government announced on Thursday a 60-day suspension of new oil and gas leases and drilling licenses for U.S. land and water, while officials were acting quickly to reverse the Trump administration’s energy and energy policies. environment.
The suspension, part of a broad overhaul of the Department of the Interior’s programs, came into effect immediately under an order signed on Wednesday by Interim Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega. This follows Democratic President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to stop new drilling on federal land and end the lease of publicly owned energy reserves as part of his plan to tackle climate change.
The order did not totally prohibit new drilling. It includes an exception that gives a small number of senior Interior officials – the secretary, the deputy secretary, the lawyer and several assistant secretaries – authority to approve actions that would otherwise be suspended.
The order also applies to coal leases and licenses and blocks the approval of new mining plans. The sale and exchange of land and the hiring of senior staff at the agency were also suspended.
Under former President Donald Trump, federal agencies have prioritized energy development and eased environmental rules to speed up drilling licenses as part of the Republican goal of increasing fossil fuel production. Trump has consistently minimized the dangers of climate change, which Biden made it his priority.
On his first day in office on Wednesday, Biden signed a series of executive orders that highlighted his different approach – returning to the Paris Climate Agreement, revoking the approval of Canada’s Keystone XL pipeline and telling agencies to immediately review dozens of Trump era rules on science, environment and public health.
The order of the Department of the Interior did not limit existing oil and gas operations under valid leases, meaning that activity will not be stopped suddenly on the millions of hectares of land in the west and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the drilling is concentrated. Its effect could be further mitigated by companies that stored enough drilling licenses in Trump’s last few months to allow them to continue pumping oil and gas for years.
Erik Milito of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore energy companies, said he was optimistic that the companies will still be able to obtain new approved licenses through the high-ranking officials specified in the order.
But Biden’s move could be the first step in an eventual goal of banning all leases and permits to drill on federal land. Mineral lease laws dictate that federal land is for many uses, including oil and gas extraction, but the Democrat could begin to rewrite those laws, said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.
The government’s announcement drew outrage from Republicans and some industry trade groups. They said limiting access to publicly owned energy resources would mean more foreign oil imports, lost jobs and less tax revenue.
Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said the government “had a disastrous and divisive start”. He added that the government is legally obliged to act on all drilling license applications it receives and that “team memos” cannot void the law.
“Preventing American energy will only serve to harm local communities and hamper America’s economic recovery,” said American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers in a statement.
National Wildlife Federation vice president Tracy Stone-Manning said she expects Biden to deliver on his campaign promise to end the lease altogether or at least impose a long-term moratorium on any new emissions.
“The Biden government is committed to reducing carbon emissions. It makes sense to start with the land that we all own, ”she said. “We already have 24 million acres leased. This should help us. “
Oil and gas extracted from land and public waters account for about a quarter of annual US production. Extracting and burning these fuels generates the equivalent of nearly 550 million tons (500 metric tons) of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.
Under Trump, Interior officials approved nearly 1,400 licenses on federal land, mainly in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. These licenses, which remain valid, will allow companies to continue drilling for years, potentially undermining Biden’s climate agenda.
But there are other ways for an ambitious Biden government to make it more difficult for licensees to extract oil and gas. “The ability to get your resources, to get the right of way, to get roads, to get support infrastructure, not all of that is signed and sealed now,” said the Clearview Energy Book.
Under President Barack Obama, the Interior Department imposed a moratorium in 2016 on federal coal leases while investigating the effects of the coal program on the climate and whether companies were paying a fair share for public land coal. Trump suspended the moratorium shortly after taking office.
AP writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed from New York.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP