WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced its plan for oil and gas drilling off the coasts of the United States, closing off the possibility of new leases in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans but allowing potential new lease sales in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Cook Inlet in Alaska.
By law, the Department of Interior is required to release a plan for new oil and gas leases in federal waters every five years. The new plan, which establishes where the government can sell oil and gas leases from 2022 through 2027, comes at a difficult moment for President Joe Biden.
He wants to scale back drilling to fight climate change at the same time gas prices are rising, allowing his Republican critics to blame his climate policies for pain at the pump. That criticism is disingenuous; the jump in oil prices is a result of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has scrambled world markets, most energy experts say. It takes years between the time a drilling lease is issued and gasoline flows at a gas station.
The proposed five-year plan puts forward several options, including holding no lease sales at all. Another option allows for 10 potential sales in the western and central Gulf of Mexico and one in the Cook Inlet off south-central Alaska. The eastern Gulf of Mexico has been closed to drilling since 1995.
“From day one, President Biden and I have made clear our commitment to transition to a clean energy economy,” Deb Haaland, Biden’s Interior secretary, said in a statement. “Today, we put forward an opportunity for the American people to consider and provide input on the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The time for the public to weigh in on our future is now.”
With the release of the plan, the Biden administration risks angering both the fossil fuel industry and environmental advocates.
Oil industry leaders, who argue more drilling in the United States is needed to bring down gas prices, have accused Biden of limiting supply to the global marketplace.
Yet with carbon emissions from oil, gas and coal climbing and intensifying the climate crisis, environmental activists argue that Biden must forbid new drilling.
“The Biden administration had an opportunity to meet the moment on climate and end new offshore oil leasing,” said Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation at Earthjustice, an environmental organization. He called the new plan’s option to include lease sales “a failure of climate leadership.”
The International Energy Agency has said nations must stop approving new coal mines and oil and gas fields in order to hold global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. That is the threshold beyond which the likelihood significantly increases of catastrophic heat waves, drought, flooding and widespread extinctions. Earth has already heated an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to end new drilling on public lands and in federal waters. Shortly after taking office, he imposed a temporary moratorium on new leases, but a federal judge in Louisiana blocked that policy. The administration is appealing.
The administration’s first and only offshore drilling auction — millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico — was overturned by a different judge who said the government had not considered the impacts of climate change closely enough. The administration has not appealed that ruling.
The five-year plan is required under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The current blueprint, finalized under former President Barack Obama, expired Thursday. Former President Donald Trump proposed opening virtually all U.S. waters to drilling, but that plan faced strong opposition from Florida Republicans concerned about the impact on tourism, and it was never finalized.
Experts have said the earliest Biden’s plan could be finalized is late this year. The administration will take public comments on the plan for 90 days after it is published in the Federal Register, likely early next week.
Interior Department officials noted that Trump’s plan proposed 47 lease sales across every coastal area of the country, including places that never had offshore drilling activities. The Biden plan “significantly narrowed the area considered for leasing to the Gulf of Mexico and Cook Inlet, where there is existing production and infrastructure” officials said in a statement.
The agency also noted that areas of potential lease sales in the proposed plan may not necessarily be in the final version. But areas not included — like the Atlantic and Pacific waters — will not appear in the final measure.
Biden’s draft plan is likely to have political ramifications. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose vote in the evenly divided Senate is critical for passing Biden’s climate agenda, has urged the president to offer more drilling rights in the Gulf in order to help ease high energy prices.
On Friday, Manchin issued a statement saying he was disappointed that the Biden administration had included a no-lease option in the plan.
“Our leasing programs are a critical component of American energy security,” Manchin said. “I hope the Administration will ultimately greenlight a plan that will expand domestic energy production.”
So sensitive was the new drilling plan that Biden’s closest aides led internal negotiations around whether and where future drilling could be allowed.
Biden has pledged to slash U.S. emissions roughly 50% this decade, but his arsenal for tackling climate change is rapidly depleting. Congress has not passed legislation that would enable significant emissions cuts, and Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce climate pollution from power plants.