Haaland defends leasing pause during Interior forum

Haaland defends leasing pause during Interior forum
© Bonnie Cash

Top officials at the Interior Department heard a variety of conflicting perspectives about drilling on federal lands and waters on Thursday amid tensions surrounding the Biden administration's pause on new federal oil and gas leasing.

Interior Secretary Deb HaalandDeb HaalandThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden to announce increased measures for omicron The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud Interior recommends imposing higher costs for public lands drilling MORE on Friday defended the pause as it “gives us space to look at the federal fossil fuel programs that haven’t been meaningfully examined or modernized in decades.”

During a public forum on Friday, industry groups, environmentalists, Native leaders and labor organizations were among those that spoke with administration officials. 

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The forum comes as the department is expected to produce an interim report on the program this summer. 

In an executive order, President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE also put a temporary pause on new leases for federal lands, “pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practice.”

When he was on the campaign trail, Biden said he wanted to ban new oil and gas permitting on federal lands, but since taking office, his administration has not said it plans to do so. 

At the top of the forum Thursday, Haaland reiterated that “fossil fuels will continue to play a major role in America for years to come.”

Republicans and some energy industry groups have criticized the pause, with 14 states recently suing over the move. 

During the forum, industry groups talked about jobs that come from public lands and waters drilling and argued that “responsible” development of federal land can be part of a climate solution. 

They also argued that the significant number of leases that are not being used does not constitute a stockpile, saying instead that not every lease can be used. 

“It takes several years ... for a company to analyze the underlying geology, perform the necessary technology and engineering assessments and arrange the logistics of exploration and development projects before a company can determine if a lease contains commercial quantities of oil and natural gas,” said Frank Macchiarola, the senior vice president of Policy, Economics and Regulatory Affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. 

Meanwhile, environmental groups warned of pollution and discussed oil spills resulting from these activities. Nathalie Eddy, interim field team manager at Earthworks, argued that the administration “should permanently halt all new oil and gas extraction on public lands.”

Speakers from indigenous groups stressed that tribes are concerned by climate and environmental issues, but some also noted the importance of oil and gas for tribal economies. 

“Too often, well-intentioned but overly broad responses to the climate crisis are not good for all of Indian Country,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.