The U.S. Department of the Interior is restarting sales oil and gas drilling leases on federal land this week for the first time since President Joe Biden took office—and after he promised on the campaign trail to end new federal fossil fuel leasing. Beginning Wednesday and Thursday, more than 140,000 acres of federal land in eight states will be on sale to the petroleum industry, according to a DOI press release.
A huge majority of the new lease area is in Wyoming, where 131,771 acres are up for grabs, according to the DOI. Other states with new federal land on offer for drilling include Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico.
“By leasing more of our public lands to oil companies, President Biden is breaking campaign promises and falling dangerously short of the global leadership required to avoid catastrophic climate change,” said Taylor McKinnon, a public lands campaigner with the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity in a statement emailed to Gizmodo.
We knew this day was coming. In April, the DOI said that it would be moving forward with onshore lease sales. The agency framed that announcement as one of environment-minded reform. It bumped up royalty rates (paid into the tax pool by petroleum companies) to 18.75% from the previous 12.5% and only agreed to auction 20% of the nominated land.
At the same time, fossil fuel companies aren’t happy about the announcement either. “We are concerned about the reduction in available parcels, we’re concerned about royalty rate increases,” said Frank Macchiarola, an executive for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement to the Hill.
The “significant reform” is a far cry from what environmental advocates want and scientists say that we need to avert the worst consequences of climate change. A study published earlier this year found that emissions from fossil fuels extracted from federal lands have comprised almost 25% of the U.S.’s total emissions since 2005.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is keeping nearly half of the lands they’ve leased idle; fossil fuel companies are not exactly short for supply, despite PR claims to the contrary. Ending new leases would be a significant signal that the administration is serious about making the energy transition happen, likely without having an impact on current oil supply. New oil leases do not lead to immediate increases in production, as they often take the better part of a decade to develop.
And it’s a move the administration was once eager to make. During his campaign, Biden promised to stop new oil and gas leasing on public lands. He even signed an early executive order in office, pausing the leasing program for a review. But since then, his administration has approved more drilling permits on federal lands than his predecessor, while the president has also publicly defended Arctic drilling. Biden’s administration claimed in November that he was legally compelled to restart oil and gas leasing, but a subsequent filing from the Justice Department in December suggested otherwise.
“We’re out of time and our climate can’t afford any new fossil fuel developments,” McKinnon said.
In May, legal battles halted an earlier planned offshore lease sale. Courts blocked auctions in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet. A group of environmental organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, have already filed a lawsuit challenging the new sales that begin today. The suit alleges that the lease approvals violated sections of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, both long-standing laws.
Oil advocates and some politicians have claimed that more domestic drilling is necessary to combat rising fuel prices, but any new leased land won’t be ready to actually produce fuel for many years. Meanwhile, companies like Exxon and Chevron have reported massive profits as people continue to get squeezed at the pump.