Biden’s inner circle debates the future of offshore drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top advisers to President Biden are weighing the possibility of banning new oil and gas drilling off America’s coasts, a move that would excite climate activists but could leave the administration vulnerable to Republican accusations of that is exacerbating an energy crisis as gasoline prices soar.

By law, the Department of the Interior must publish a plan for new oil and gas concessions in federal waters every five years. Deb Haaland, the interior secretary, promised Congress that a draft of the Biden plan will be available by June 30.

With the administration well aware that inflation and high gas prices are weighing on voters ahead of November’s midterm elections, the White House is shaping the plan, two administration officials said.

President Biden’s inner circle, including chief of staff Ron Klain and adviser Steve Ricchetti, are heavily involved in the discussion of whether and where to allow drilling, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss. the deliberations

“The Biden Administration is in a tough spot,” said Sara Rollet Gosman, a professor of environmental and energy law at the University of Arkansas. “If the Department of the Interior decides to eliminate foreign lease sales or offer only a few sales, it does the right thing for the climate. But it also gives fossil fuel companies grounds to argue that President Biden doesn’t care about high gas prices.”

Several people familiar with the administration’s decision-making said it is likely to block new drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the face of widespread bipartisan opposition from members of Congress and coastal state leaders. The eastern Gulf of Mexico has been closed to drilling since 1995.

It is still being considered whether to continue allowing lease sales in parts of the Arctic Ocean, as well as the western and central Gulf of Mexico.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden has pledged to end new drilling on public lands and in federal waters. Environmental activists have argued that offshore drilling has no place in a clean energy future. They are pushing the administration to ban drilling on the entire outer continental shelf to reduce the US contribution to climate change.

“We’ve been very clear in our conversations with the Interior that we expect the president to keep his campaign promise to end the new leases,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign manager for Oceana, an environmental advocacy organization.

The International Energy Agency has said that nations must stop approving new coal mines or oil and gas fields to keep global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels. That is the threshold beyond which the probability of catastrophic heat waves, droughts, floods and widespread extinctions increases significantly. The Earth has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.

If Biden awards new drilling contracts, he risks alienating climate-conscious voters that Democrats need for the midterm elections this fall, said Tré Easton, a Democratic strategist.

“Joe Biden breaking an important campaign promise and extending new leases will not affect energy prices in this country,” he said. “It’s a distraction and I really hope the White House recognizes it as such.”

Areas available for lease under the plan would be auctioned until 2027. Years can pass between a lease sale and oil or gas production from offshore drilling.

Still, the fossil fuel industry and Republicans blame the Biden administration for record high gasoline prices, accusing it of slowing fossil fuel production.

On Wednesday, Biden called on Congress to temporarily halt the federal gas tax to provide some relief to motorists. The administration also released strategic oil reserves, lifted a ban on summer sales of high-ethanol gasoline blends and urged US oil producers to increase production.

Republicans say the administration is trying to have it both ways.

“The administration cannot pretend to support oil and gas production while doing everything in its power to slow and block the expansion of production on public lands,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said at a recent hearing. in which he and others questioned Ms. Haaland about the five-year plan.

The draft five-year plan for the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program is expected to include several options, including a “no action alternative,” meaning no new lease sales offered, which it happened in the past.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the internal deliberations, saying no decisions have been made.

“The department is working hard to develop the five-year plan. I don’t have up-to-date information on the weather,” Ms. Schwartz said.

At one point, the Biden administration had considered limiting new drilling to the central and western Gulf of Mexico, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy companies, said that would be detrimental to consumers. The new leases in the Gulf of Mexico could mean an additional 2.4 million barrels of crude per day, an amount that “may have a global impact on the market,” he said.

Last month, the Biden administration canceled lease sales in federal waters off Alaska’s Cook Inlet, citing a lack of industry interest.

The Cook Inlet basin, at one time Alaska’s main source of oil, is now primarily a source of natural gas for local utilities and large-scale projects have been rare in recent years, energy experts said. Still, the industry wants to make Arctic waters available for potential future leases.

Once the Department of the Interior’s Office of Ocean Management publishes the five-year plan, it will be subject to a public comment period before it is finalized. Past presidents have used the plan to either slam the door open on unchecked development or slam it shut to prevent further drilling.

President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic Ocean, and later invoked an obscure provision in a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, to also ban drilling in areas along the Arctic Ocean. along the Atlantic coast.

President Trump attempted to open all coastal waters in the United States to oil and gas drilling, including areas protected by the Obama administration.

But at the end of his administration and under intense pressure from Florida Republicans who feared drilling would harm tourism, Trump signed an executive order banning drilling for 10 years off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Carolina. from North.

Trump’s broader plan was never finalized. Ms. Haaland told lawmakers that the Trump administration stopped working on a five-year plan in 2018 and “several contentious litigation” contributed to the delays, she said.

The offshore oil and gas leasing plan has landed at the center of a debate over the administration’s oil and gas decisions. Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order to stop issuing new leases, but a successful legal challenge from Republican states and the oil industry forced the administration to hold new lease sales.

The administration is appealing that ruling. At the same time, he is defending himself in another Republican-led lawsuit that seeks to prevent the government from considering the economic cost of climate change resulting from drilling and other actions it allows.

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