Why Biden is approving public lands oil drilling permits faster than Trump did — and angering environmentalists

The Biden administration has issued more permits for oil and gas drilling on public land per month than the Trump administration did in its first three years, according to a new analysis of federal data.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved an average of 333 drilling permits per month since Biden took office earlier this year. By comparison, in 2017, Trump's first year in office, BLM approved an average of 245 drilling permits per month. In 2018 and 2019, BLM also approved fewer than 300 permits per month, but monthly permits jumped to 452 in 2020 as fossil fuel companies stocked up on them in anticipation of an administration less supportive of drilling.

Joe Biden
President Biden delivers remarks on the November jobs report on Dec. 3. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The industry’s fears were apparently unfounded. The high number of drilling permits issued under Biden concerns government watchdogs who complain that fossil fuel extraction on public land worsens climate change and shortchanges taxpayers — as the Department of Interior (DOI) itself found in a recent report.

“Without aggressive government action, the fossil fuel industry will continue creating enormous amounts of climate-destroying pollution exploiting lands owned by the public,” said Alan Zibel, a Public Citizen researcher and the author of the study, released on Monday.

Environmentalists argue that the ongoing permitting represents a failure of the Biden administration to uphold its campaign pledge to reform and phase out the extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands that cause climate change. “The president has basically only tried to tackle one side of the climate problem,” Jamie Henn, an organizer with the Build Back Fossil Free coalition, told the Washington Post on Monday. “He’s talked a lot about building clean energy, but he hasn’t done anything to stop fossil fuels.”

But whereas Biden’s campaign promise applied to selling new leases for drilling and mining, permits are issued for leases already sold, mostly under previous administrations.

“Permit reviews on legally maintained leases are required by law,” Tyler Cherry, a press secretary for the DOI, of which BLM is a division, told Yahoo News in an email.

Oil platforms
Oil platforms off the coast of Southern California. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Activists argue, however, that the DOI could take steps to reduce the rate of permitting. “Certainly, the deck is stacked against the Biden administration when it comes to leases that have been sold in the past,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation advocacy organization, acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo News. “However, it doesn't have to be a complete rubber stamp. The administration can ask companies to go back to the drawing board if they haven't done a full environmental analysis of what the impacts could be. So, certainly there are tools to try to take into account some of these environmental impacts and not just approve every single one of [the applications].”

Prentice-Dunn ran the numbers on applications and approvals and found that the Biden administration is approving a higher percentage of drilling permit applications than the aggressively pro-fossil-fuel Trump administration did.

“Through the end of September, they had approved 98 percent of the permit applications they had processed — 98 percent!” Prentice-Dunn said. “During fiscal year 2020, towards the end of the Trump administration, they were approving permits at a clip of 94 percent. If 98 percent approval isn’t a rubber stamp, I don’t know what is.”

Other environmental advocates believe that the administration could not only enforce current environmental impact analysis requirements more rigorously but also revise the permitting process to incorporate the effects of burning fossil fuels on climate change into the analysis.

Oil and sea water collect in a tide pool
Oil and sea water collect in a tide pool after a 126,000-gallon oil spill from an offshore oil platform in Newport Beach, Calif., on Oct. 3. (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

“The executive branch has considerable discretion, but within the bounds set up by Congress, and Congress has set up a series of sometimes-in-tension-with-each-other mandates,” Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Yahoo News.

Those mandates include the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which requires that the government avoid “unnecessary and undue degradation of the environment,” and the Endangered Species Act, which could be used to reject drilling projects that threaten endangered species. There’s also the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires adequate advance environmental analysis and disclosure of actions by the federal government.

To date, the DOI has applied these laws to consider only the environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction on the immediate area. Saul argues that BLM should factor the effect of burning fossil fuels on climate change into those assessments.

“Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been repeatedly dinged by the courts for their failure to think about climate change before undertaking fossil fuel leasing activities” under NEPA, he noted.

“While it would presumably be a breach of the lease contract for the Department of Interior to simply say, ‘No, we’re not giving out any more permits,’ the Interior Department not only can but must ensure that the permit terms comply with all those other laws, and fundamentally, that those terms are in the public interest,” Saul said.

“There is vastly more that the administration should do — and indeed, we would argue, under the law must do — to ensure that those nondiscretionary, mandatory, statutory requirements are met before drilling permits should be issued,” he added.

Pumpjacks in the Belridge oil field, near McKittrick, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Pumpjacks in the Belridge oil field near McKittrick, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

How this would work in practice is another question, but some legal scholars believe that the DOI could condition granting permits on the fossil fuel company mitigating the climate pollution it will cause. For example, each permit application could calculate the carbon footprint of the project — based on the fossil fuel being burned, not just the emissions from the drilling or mining operation itself — and require that it pays a fee equal to the social cost of carbon emissions. Or perhaps the firm could buy carbon offsets to equal those emissions, for example by planting enough trees to reduce emissions by as much as the project will increase them.

The DOI and the White House did not respond to Yahoo News’ question about these suggestions. Instead, Cherry repeated the department’s explanation about the already begun process of reforming fossil fuel leasing, which is separate from permitting.

“Interior is conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before. Onshore, the Bureau of Land Management is looking at cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from multiple lease sales for the first time ever,” he wrote.

In fairness to the Biden administration, the high rate of drilling permits issued thus far may, in part, reflect the large number of leases sold under Trump.

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“I think it's fair to say that there is a time lag, and it’s not a battleship that responds instantly,” Zibel told Yahoo News.

The slow pace of change in the federal government is also the primary reason that no one in the new administration has apparently done anything to reform the permitting process, according to experts.

“This is bureaucratic inertia,” said Prentice-Dunn. “This is how the system has been set up for a century. It was basically designed by the oil and gas industry and its supporters in Congress. And those companies have paid lobbyists a lot of money to keep it that way.

“The BLM has what, 10,000 staff? It’s a huge bureaucracy. And so it’s hard to turn around the Titanic like that. So in a certain sense, this is how things have been done for a century and it’s business as usual.”

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.