WASHINGTON — President Biden’s top aides are debating whether to ban new oil and gas drilling off America’s coast, a move that would delight climate activists but could leave the administration vulnerable to Republican accusations that it is exacerbating a energy crisis as gas prices soar.
By law, the Department of the Interior is required to publish a plan for new oil and gas leases in federal waters every five years. Deb Haaland, the Interior Secretary, has promised Congress that a draft Biden plan will be available by June 30.
With the administration keenly aware that inflation and high prices at the pump are weighing on voters ahead of November’s midterm elections, the White House is crafting the plan, two administration officials said.
President Biden’s inner circle, including chief of staff Ron Klain and longtime adviser Steve Ricchetti, are closely involved in the discussion of whether and where to authorize the drilling, said the officials, who have spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.
“The Biden administration is in a tough spot,” said Sara Rollet Gosman, a professor of environmental and energy law at the University of Arkansas. “If the Home Office decides to eliminate overseas lease sales or offer only a few sales, it is doing the right thing for the climate. But it also gives arguments to fossil fuel companies to argue that President Biden doesn’t care about high gas prices. »
Several people familiar with the administration’s decision-making said it would likely block further drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the face of widespread bipartisan opposition from members of Congress and leaders of coastal states. The eastern Gulf of Mexico has been closed to drilling since 1995.
Whether to continue to allow lease sales in parts of the Arctic Ocean and the western and central Gulf of Mexico is still under consideration.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden pledged to end new drilling on public lands and in federal waters. Environmental activists have argued that offshore drilling has no place in a clean energy future. They are lobbying the administration to ban drilling on the entire outer continental shelf to reduce the United States’ contribution to climate change.
“We’ve been very clear in our conversations with the Interior that we expect the president to deliver on his campaign commitment to end new leases,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign manager at advocacy organization Oceana. of the environment.
The International Energy Agency has said countries must stop approving new coal mines or new oil and gas fields in order to keep global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared at pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold beyond which the likelihood of catastrophic heat waves, droughts, floods and widespread extinctions increases dramatically. The Earth has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution.
If Mr. Biden issues new drilling leases, he risks alienating climate-conscious voters that Democrats are due to run in the midterm elections this fall, said Tré Easton, a Democratic strategist.
“Joe Biden breaking an important campaign promise and extending new leases will have no bearing on energy prices in this country,” he said. “It’s a distraction and I really hope the White House recognizes it as such.”
Areas made available for lease under the plan would be auctioned until 2027. It can take years between a lease sale and the production of gas or oil from offshore drilling.
Yet the fossil fuel industry and Republicans are blaming record gas prices on the Biden administration, accusing it of slowing fossil fuel production.
The main reasons for the rise in gas prices, which reached a national average of $4.95 per gallon on Wednesday, are the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptions in global supply and demand, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent ban on Russian oil, gas and coal.
On Wednesday, Mr. Biden called on Congress to temporarily suspend the federal gasoline tax to provide relief to motorists. The administration also released strategic oil reserves, suspended a ban on summer sales of high-ethanol blended gasoline, and urged U.S. oil producers to increase production.
Republicans say the administration is trying to have it both ways.
“The administration cannot pretend to support oil and gas production while doing everything in its power to slow and block the expansion of production on public lands,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, during a recent hearing where he and others grilled Ms. Haaland over the five-year plan.
The draft five-year plan for the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing program is expected to include several options, including a ‘no-action alternative’ – i.e. no new lease sales , which has happened in the past.
Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to comment on internal deliberations and said no decision had been finalized.
“The ministry is working hard on developing the five-year plan. I don’t have any updates on the schedule,” Ms. Schwartz said.
At one point, the Biden administration considered limiting new drilling to the central and western Gulf of Mexico, according to three people briefed on the matter.
Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy companies, said that would be detrimental to consumers. New leases in the Gulf of Mexico could mean an additional 2.4 million barrels of crude per day – an amount that “can have a global impact on the market”, he said.
Last month, the Biden administration canceled lease sales in federal waters off Cook Inlet in Alaska, citing a lack of industry interest.
The Cook Inlet Basin, once Alaska’s main source of oil, is now primarily a source of natural gas for local utilities and large-scale projects have been rare in recent years, energy experts said. Yet the industry wants Arctic waters to be available for possible future leases.
Once the Home Office’s Bureau of Ocean Management publishes the five-year plan, it will be subject to a public comment period before being finalized. Past presidents have used the plan to alternately open the door to uncontrolled development or slam it shut to prevent further drilling.
President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic Ocean, and then invoked an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, to ban drilling as well. along the Atlantic coast.
President Trump has attempted to open all US coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, including areas protected by the Obama administration.
But at the end of his administration and under intense pressure from Republicans in Florida who feared the drilling would harm tourism, Mr. Trump signed an executive order banning drilling for 10 years off the coast of Florida, the Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Mr. Trump’s larger plan was never finalized. Ms Haaland told lawmakers that the Trump administration stopped working on a five-year plan in 2018 and that “various conflicting disputes” had contributed to the delays, she said.
The offshore oil and gas lease plan has landed at the center of a debate over the administration’s oil and gas decisions. Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order to suspend the issuance of new leases – but a successful legal challenge by Republican states and the oil industry has forced the administration to stage new lease sales. leases.
The administration is appealing this decision. At the same time, he is defending himself in another Republican-led lawsuit that seeks to block the government from considering the economic cost of climate change from drilling and other actions it authorizes.
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