Analysis: Biden may hinder oil and gas drilling even after court loss

An oil and gas drilling rig at Dauphin Island, Alabama, October 5, 2013. REUTERS / Steve Nesius

June 16 (Reuters) – The administration of US President Joe Biden has the power to prevent the development of oil and gas on government-controlled lands and waters, industry and government experts have said. environment, even though a court ruling ended its freeze on federal drilling auctions.

Some options, they said, include offering sparse acreage or imposing longer permit requirements.

“We lived under the Obama administration, and they did a lot of things to restrict leasing and other activities on federal lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance business group, in an interview.

“And frankly, they have the power to do it.”

In January, Biden temporarily suspended sales of drilling leases on federal lands and waters to weigh the environmental costs of the program. The move was widely seen as a first step in keeping his election promise to permanently ban new federal leases to fight climate change.

Several oil-producing states have sued, arguing the break was illegal and would hurt their economies. Louisiana federal court judge Terry Doughty, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, on Tuesday ordered the government to lift the suspension.

The United States Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 states that the government must schedule lease sales at least quarterly in “every state where qualifying land is available.”

Changing this law is unlikely in a politically divided Congress. Still, industry and green groups agree that Biden’s Home Office, which oversees federal land-based oil and gas development, has many other ways to avoid or at least slow down new leases. .

The administration, for example, has the power to decide what is “eligible land”.

Previous administrations have removed areas of consideration for rental. Trump’s Republican administration, for example, has deferred leases within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. President Barack Obama, a Democrat who had Biden as vice president, has removed parts of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans from eligibility for offshore drilling.

“When you think about it, the system can only work if there is a healthy dose of discretion built in,” said Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at environmental group Earthjustice. “Otherwise, any oil company could come in at any time and apply for a lease at location X.”

In the coming weeks, Biden’s Home Office is expected to issue a report with recommendations on how to reform the century-old oil and gas lease program, Home Secretary Deb Haaland said on Wednesday.

The ministry declined to comment on whether it would hold further lease sales, but said it would abide by the court ruling.

If Interior takes over the rental, it has the power to do so with strict conditions and extended approval times, experts said. It can also auction a limited number of acres, frustrating bidders.

Industry anticipates that Interior will extend the review of potential rental areas using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of projects.

“NEPA is a great tool for paralysis by analysis… we will see NEPA take longer,” Sgamma said.

The Biden administration has argued that program reforms are needed in part because the Trump administration has failed to conduct extensive reviews of rental areas. This has resulted in the cancellation of many leases and set back Trump’s efforts to maximize fossil fuel production.

“Every time we have challenged lease sales in court, we have been able to demonstrate that the climate crisis has not been taken into account and we have triumphed in each of these cases,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, Director of the Western Environmental Law Center. (WELC).

Environmental groups like WELC and WildEarth Guardians are prepared to sue if sales of drilling leases resume, according to WELC’s Schlenker-Goodrich and WildEarth’s climate and energy program director Jeremy Nichols.

“We hope we don’t have to name Deb Haaland as a defendant in a case. It would be really sad, ”Nichols said. “But we have to do what we have to do, and this program is on track.”

Reporting by Nichola Groom and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by David Gregorio

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