Climate can’t wait: Biden must use his power to end new fossil fuel leasing

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To stand any chance of avoiding the worst consequences of catastrophic climate change, there is broad scientific agreement that there can be no new fossil-fuel extraction. Not on public lands or in federal waters, not anywhere. Not one more acre.

But the Interior Department’s long-awaited review of federal oil and gas leasing said virtually nothing about climate change and nothing about scaling back — let alone ending — leasing, despite President Biden’s pledge during the campaign that he would do so.

The Biden administration even failed to recommend environmental analyses before new leases are sold. Such analyses could weigh just how much harm burning more fossil fuels will do to our rapidly warming world and, one would hope, rely on that good science to reject the leases.

The review — released on Black Friday, just days after the administration leased 80 million acres for oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico — confirmed Biden’s broken campaign promise.

By recommending slightly higher fees for drilling on public lands and waters, while failing to acknowledge the climate-killing premise of the leasing program, the Interior report gave oil and gas companies the green light.

The review ignored the fact that the federal leasing programs account for nearly one-quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. It said, in effect, just pay us more money and we’ll call it good.

The administration’s report was a disappointment, a huge missed opportunity and a glaring reminder that no amount of rhetoric — or royalty rate hikes — will break the stranglehold fossil fuel companies have on our political system. To quote youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, it was more “blah, blah, blah.”

What’s maddening is that Biden can prohibit new leasing under existing laws — today.

The administration wrongly claims that a federal judge’s order reversing Biden’s January executive order pause on oil and gas leasing has tied their hands. They’re using that order as an excuse to appease an insatiable industry by auctioning off more federal lands and waters.
  

But the court order lifting Biden’s leasing ban doesn’t take away the administration’s authority over federal oil and gas leasing, and the Biden administration is appealing the court’s decision. There’s plenty the president can do, right now, to halt new leasing.

  • Onshore, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act allows the Interior Department to amend public land management plans and enact bans on mineral withdrawals, including by making these lands unavailable for leasing because of the damage extracting and burning fossil fuels would inflict on air, water, wildlife and human health.
  • Under the Mineral Leasing Act, the Interior Department can set up a managed decline of oil and gas production on public lands.
  • Offshore, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act allows the president to withdraw all remaining areas from drilling, and the Interior Department can make no additional leasing available in future offshore plans.
  • The president can declare a climate emergency and use his executive authority to phase out federal fossil fuel extraction.

In addition to presidential powers, judges in several recent court decisions have agreed that it’s illegal to allow any new leasing without looking at the potential harm to the climate, wildlife, water and communities.

Yet, Biden’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to auction off 350,000 acres of public lands, most of it in Wyoming and Colorado, in the first weeks of the new year. There are millions of tons of climate pollution in those proposed leases.

The administration has also been busy approving drilling permits across river valleys, grasslands and sagebrush steppes throughout the West — more than 3,370 new permits since Biden took office, outpacing the Trump administration.

When Biden took the stage in Glasgow last month at the UN COP26 climate conference, many of us looked for hope in his soaring rhetoric.

“Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” he asked.

Climate change, Biden said, “is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, an existential threat to human existence as we know it, and every day we delay the cost of inaction increases.”

For the sake of this and future generations, the president must ensure his actions are as powerful as his words. For now, the chasm between his rhetoric and his policy is dangerously wide.

Randi Spivak is director of the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Tags Climate change Drilling Energy Fossil fuels gas leasing Greta Thunberg Joe Biden oil leasing public lands Randi Spivak

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