Why Biden’s Interior Department isn’t shutting down oil and gas

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We’re now six months into the Biden administration and, despite some very encouraging climate action and refreshing candor about the urgency of the climate crisis, some observers have started to grumble that the White House has not yet demonstrated the hoped-for climate ambition, particularly as regards oil and gas extraction on our shared public lands, the purview of the Department of the Interior. Indeed, oil and gas permitting at the Interior Department has continued apace, if not increased: Multiple new fossil energy projects have gotten the greenlight, and early messaging from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland suggests that the existing ban on new leasing may not stand. All of this at a time of record-setting heat waves and a warming trend in which the past seven years are the hottest years on record — and likely some of the coolest years I will see for the rest of my lifetime.

Why, during a widely-recognized climate emergency, has the Interior Department not acted more decisively to limit emissions from federal lands — the source of nearly one-quarter of our nation’s carbon emissions?

Are there former Trump administration lackeys in the agency sneaking permits through the system? No, the permitting process is under a lot of scrutiny right now.

Is the Biden team at Interior ambivalent about the climate crisis? Certainly not, as individuals they know what must be done and are eager to do it.

Is the resurgence in the price of crude oil driving an automatic increase in permitting on federal lands? No, the agency has considerable discretion over leasing and permitting processes. So, what gives?

In a word, power. And in this case, the power in question resides in the U.S. Senate. I’m no fan of pointing fingers at Capitol Hill, it’s an easy and overused trope. In this case, however, because of the precarious one-vote majority held by Senate Democrats, and a reluctance to do away with the filibuster, those senators who stand astride the moderate divide have the power to quash the most essential climate actions on the part of the Biden administration, and they are doing so.

For example, Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski is a relatively moderate Republican whose vote is often necessary for measures that bridge the partisan divide. If Senate Democrats want her vote on crucial measures, be they climate related or not, they need to keep her happy. She also happens to sit on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, is the ranking member of its Interior-Environment subcommittee, is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is ranking member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee — all of which pull strings at Interior.

This is no accident: The Interior Department is responsible for managing federal lands that cover over 60 percent of the state of Alaska. So, the key levers for keeping Murkowski happy are found at the Interior Department.

While Murkowski grudgingly accepted Haaland’s secretary nomination despite the nominee’s strong climate bona fides, she shut down a nominee for deputy secretary to demonstrate a measure of control over the front office. She accepted the suspension of controversial oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but would not abide canceling the more viable ConocoPhillips prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

By all accounts Murkowski accepts the reality of the fossil fuel industry’s role in causing climate change, but is not willing to compromise their operations in Alaska. As a proponent of strategic investments in the Arctic, she sees the region unraveling as it warms three times faster than the rest of the planet, but she does not want to be responsible for potentially gutting the state’s struggling economy by stepping up to address the climate emergency we face. She’s in a tough spot — and is holding Interior hostage there.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia, is also unwilling to compromise the fossil fuel industry important to his state’s economy. He also sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and, more importantly, he happens to be the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Democratic leadership’s difficulty in holding his vote on key measures has been well-documented, and his influence at Interior is substantial.

So the permitting of fossil fuel extraction continues apace at Interior (perhaps inadvertently demonstrating that the ban on new leasing has had zero effect on production) and fossil fuel infrastructure continues to be built on federal lands at a time when even the International Energy Agency head has said that such investments must immediately cease to avoid global catastrophe.

The prevailing political opinion is that keeping these key moderate senators happy is essential to getting anything done at all, but this approach is preventing the Biden administration from acting decisively to address a global climate emergency that is killing people — lots of people. The impacts of the climate emergency are accelerating more rapidly every year, while economic and social disruptions threaten to undermine health, safety and geopolitical stability.

For those of us who have been working on climate change issues for decades, playing politics around the margins of a disaster of this scale seems insane. At a time when the climate-aware Democrats actually hold both houses of Congress, the concessions seem foolish.

This is not to say that the urgently necessary transition to clean energy won’t affect West Virginia and Alaska and other states, like Haaland’s home state of New Mexico, whose economies depend on fossil fuel extraction, they will indeed. That’s why forward-looking climate measures include billions of dollars to help the remaining fossil fuel workers train for and find good new jobs. Nobody wants to leave them hanging, and there is an opportunity to help them become the vanguard of a new clean energy economy.

A forward-looking legislator in a fossil fuel state would be wise to fight aggressively for financial commitments to make the people in their state whole during an energy transition, rather than set back the American economy by fighting the inevitable energy transition itself.

As the Republican Party remains foolishly dug in against aggressive climate action, the Democratic party must either eliminate the filibuster or win a more decisive majority in Congress if America, and the world, have any hope of reducing the suffering ahead. This is unfortunate because the suffering is bipartisan, the economic costs are bipartisan and the social deficit that our kids and grandkids will inherit is bipartisan. On the other hand, however, this can be seen as encouraging. It means that in the 2022 elections the power to make transformative change will be in the voters’ hands rather than those of a few legislators firmly anchored to yesterday’s tragic economy.

Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.

Tags Climate change climate crisis Deb Haaland extreme weather Fossil fuels Global warming Interior Department Joe Manchin Joel Clement Lisa Murkowski oil and gas oil drilling public lands
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