Interior Dept. approves Trump-era oil drilling leases despite Biden moratorium


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The good

The following is not a comprehensive list, just the most recent actions. Since taking office, Biden has successfully added 22 new environmental protections and overturned 34 of Trump’s rollbacks.

Vineyard Wind, the first-large scale offshore wind farm in the U.S., won approval from the Biden administration earlier this month. The 62-turbine farm off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts is expected to create enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. Over the next four years, the Interior Department hopes to approve enough wind power to hit 30 gigawatts by 2030.

“I believe that a clean-energy future is within our grasp in the United States,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a conference call Tuesday, describing the approval of Vineyard Wind as “a significant milestone in our efforts to build a clean and more equitable energy future while addressing the climate emergency.”

The Interior Department took its first steps to restore the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a rule that Trump weakened by allowing the “accidental” killing of any number of birds. Oil companies benefited the most from Trump’s rollback. They were responsible for 90% of incidental takes – or accidental killings of birds – prosecuted under the act.

“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a bedrock environmental law that is critical to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “Today’s actions will serve to better align Interior with its mission and ensure that our decisions are guided by the best-available science.”

  • Background: “Trump Administration Continues Effort to Strip Away Bird Protections,” Audubon Society.

The EPA began the process to repeal a Trump-era regulation that changed the way the agency calculates the cost and benefits of air pollution rules. Instead of separating direct benefits and ancillary benefits to new regulations, Biden’s administration will restore the previous method of presenting the two together. Experts said the Trump-era change “appeared designed to give industries a way to legally block the E.P.A. over future air pollution rules.”

In a win for environmental justice and human rights, the Biden administration reversed Trump’s pledge to invest $35.7 million in a controversial dam in Honduras. The Jilamito Hydroelectric Project is opposed by the local community, which has been persecuted by the Hondoran government. At least half a dozen water defenders have been arrested and two killed due to their opposition to the dam.

“Communities resisting destructive projects, imposed by big money and corrupt acts against their wishes and best interests, are confronted with tear gas, violence, and the selective criminalisation of leaders,” said lawyer Victor Fernandez, co-founder of the collective Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ in Spanish) which represents communities across northern Honduras, including Jilamito.

The Hoduran company providing a large portion of the dam’s funding has been accused of corruption and fraud, furthering instability in the region and driving migration.

Biden’s 2022 budget proposal calls for more than $36 billion to fight climate changeincluding $10 billion for clean energy innovation, $1.4 billion for environmental justice initiatives, and $1.2 billion to help developing countries lower their emissions and adapt to climate change.

The president’s infrastructure package also contains a large amount of green energy spending, but Republicans are looking to slash it by over $150 billion dollars. With coal-friendly Sen. Joe Manchin as the likely 50th vote for any bill passed through budget reconciliation (as well as the chair of the Senate Energy Committee), the future of any green energy legislation is up in the air for now.

Further reading: “Biden administration wants to give more power back to states to block pipelines,” WaPo. “Reaching Back To The New Deal, Biden Proposes A Civilian Climate Corps,” NPR.

The bad

The Biden administration is defending a Trump-era oil drilling project in Alaska, despite pledging to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and cut United States emissions about in half by 2030. The so-called Willow project would produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years, creating nearly 260 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. ConocoPhillips obtained approval for drilling last year; environmental groups sued to block the project, arguing the federal government did not take into account the impact on local wildlife and on global warming:

The 23-million-acre Reserve is recognized as a globally important ecological resource. It is home to a diversity of species, including caribou, polar bears, brown bears, muskoxen, and millions of migratory birds, among many other species… The Project will disturb wildlife, destroy wetlands, and permanently alter rural lifestyles and traditional cultural practices dependent on food resources like fish and caribou. The Project will further imperil polar bears that are already threatened from climate change and the expansion of oil and gas development in the Arctic. And the Project’s enormous greenhouse gas emissions are inconsistent with the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. Developing a massive new Arctic oil formation is a threat to the global climate and an already dramatically warming Arctic region. [PDF]

In its court filing on Wednesday, the federal government argued that the agency conducted a valid analysis of the impacts of drilling, explored alternatives, and ultimately followed the law in reaching a leasing deal with Conoco.

The [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] issued a Section 404 permit to Conoco following the Corps’ proper determination under the Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines that (1) the Project will not cause or contribute to significant degradation of waters of the United States; (2) the discharge is the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative; and (3) appropriate and practicable steps were taken to minimize potential adverse impacts of the discharge on the aquatic ecosystem. [PDF]

The Arctic is heating up at three times the rate of the rest of the planet. Highlighting the ridiculousness of undertaking a drilling project in the arctic, ConocoPhillips will have to install “chillers” into the permafrost to keep the ground stable enough to support heavy extraction equipment.

Just a week before the government defended new drilling in Alaska, the International Energy Agency warned that exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Further reading: “Why Biden Isn’t Cracking Down on Fossil Fuels: The reasons are complicated — and have a lot to do with the tricky politics of governance while Democrats have only the narrowest control of Congress,” NYT.

Bidem’s executive order banning new oil and natural gas leasing on public lands has been panned as “limited and tenuous,” particularly in light of the hundreds of Trump-era drilling projects approved by the new administration. Over 500 drilling permits were approved in February and March 2021, the majority in Wyoming. Yet, despite this influx, Wyoming’s oil and gas industry sued Biden over his executive order, arguing it violates the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, are also upset over what they see as a reversal of a much-needed moratorium:

“It really struck us as odd that the Bureau of Land Management decided it was appropriate to essentially lease when the president has very explicitly said, ‘There shall be no leasing at the moment,'” [WildEarth Guardians’ Jeremy] Nichols said. “We’re likely going to file a new lawsuit and sadly having to confront President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland for turning their backs on climate science and the public interest.”

The central point of conflict in Biden’s policy is the difference between leases and permits. According to Mark Squillace, professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School, a more effective method for limiting fossil fuel development would be to pause permits, not leases:

“The [permitting] process is an opportunity for the government to impose restrictions, or limit the way in which oil and gas development occurs,” Squillace said. “They could put a pause on [permits].” And unlike the statutory obligation to offer new leases, Squillace said, “I don’t know that there’s any particular obligation to issue [permits].”

Pausing new permits “would be a good first step for the federal government … where the administration actually has the authority to act unilaterally without going to Congress for legislation,” [Mitch Jones, policy director for environmental advocacy group Food & Water Watch], said.

Further reading: “New Idaho law allows killing up to 90 percent of state’s wolves,” National Geographic.