The fossil-fuel industry is impeding U.S. climate progress, but the Biden administration has the power to keep us on track
When President Joe Biden spoke at the UN Climate Summit on Nov. 11, he sounded a note of urgency. “To permanently bend the emissions curve, every nation needs to step up,” he said. “At this gathering, we must renew and raise our climate ambitions.”
Biden pointed to the United States’ efforts to curb methane emissions and touted the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – landmark legislation passed by Congress in August that will deliver historic investments on climate. With these initiatives, he said, the U.S. will “meet our emissions targets by 2030.”
It’s true that major progress is being made – but unfortunately, several studies have shown that the U.S. won’t meet those targets unless it pushes harder to reduce climate pollution. The New York Times, for example, recently highlighted new data from Climate Action Tracker showing that the U.S., like China, India and the European Union, won’t meet its climate targets by 2030, even considering the significant strides made with the IRA. “The law is projected to bring emissions from the United States down significantly,” the Times wrote, “but not enough to fully comply with a pledge to cut emissions by at least half by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels.”
A major reason why the U.S. is falling short is ongoing fossil-fuel extraction on federal lands and offshore territories under its control. Biden himself promised no new drilling when campaigning for office – and now must, and still can, follow through with that commitment. Millions of acres, which are under public ownership and shared by all Americans, have already been leased to oil and gas companies. Today even more fossil-fuel leasing is on the horizon, opening the floodgates to new oil-and-gas drilling operations that could continue producing for decades. However, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which answers to Biden, has the power to set leasing terms and make permitting decisions. Ramping down fossil-fuel extraction is one of Biden’s greatest opportunities to demonstrate global leadership. As things stand, a full one-quarter of U.S. GHG emissions can be attributed to federal fossil-fuel extraction activity, representing a significant chunk of our national carbon footprint. Considering that the U.S. is one of the greatest emitters on the planet, that’s saying a lot.
Thanks to the influence of the fossil fuel industry, the Inflation Reduction Act came with some unexpected setbacks written into the text of the law. It revived two offshore oil-and-gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and a third in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. These lease sales, covering millions of acres, had previously been stalled – either by court rulings or lack of industry interest. Another provision in the Act seeks to hold renewable-energy development hostage to the oil industry for the next decade, by requiring offshore oil-and-gas lease sales to be held before new offshore wind development can win a green light from federal permitting agencies.
“Legal scrutiny of the IRA shows that it does not bind us to fossil-fuel interests to the extent that many might believe,” said Steve Mashuda, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Oceans program, which has challenged Gulf lease sales in court. “While the IRA does require three offshore lease sales to be held, Interior has the responsibility and the discretion to make the right choices here: It should, for example, decide that any leases be conditioned with measures that protect people and wildlife and that limit greenhouse gases emitted from the resulting industrial activity.”
In the same way a landlord might set the terms of an apartment lease, Interior can establish protective leasing terms. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence so far that federal permitting agencies are seeking to pump the brakes on climate pollution. For example, Interior has already announced plans for an offshore lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet by the end of December that will lease even more acres than required under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Offshore leasing is only a part of the picture. A full 90 percent of public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management could potentially be offered up for lease to the oil and gas industry, with no special protections in place to safeguard the climate. As of March 2022, the oil industry reportedly held leases to more than 25 million acres of public lands — yet roughly half were sitting idle and undeveloped. In October, DOI announced that it is considering offering more than 260,000 acres of public land for lease across New Mexico and Wyoming in sales planned for mid-2023. This was followed by a second announcement in November that another 95,000 acres in Nevada and Utah could soon go up for lease. Most fossil-fuel development currently underway is taking place in the West and Alaska, where drought and rapidly warming temperatures are already dramatically altering people’s lives and the surrounding ecology.
“When President Biden took office, he called for a comprehensive review and overhaul of the federal oil and gas program to address climate,” said Mike Freeman, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “Unfortunately, he hasn’t followed through yet.” That’s why momentum is building for a shift in the way oil-and-gas is authorized on public lands. Numerous groups have urged the Interior Department to reform the antiquated federal oil and gas system before it holds any new lease sales. BLM, for example, can require that any new leasing and drilling conform with U.S. climate goals.
Data shows that significant reductions would have to be made in fossil-fuel extraction if the federal oil and gas program conformed to the same climate goal – reducing emissions 50 percent by 2030 when compared with 2005 levels – that Biden has set for the rest of the nation. The stark contrast between mirroring this goal and going along with business-as-usual is evident in this chart prepared by Apogee Economics and Policy:
Living up to climate targets in the context of fossil-fuel extraction on public lands would mean following the green line – but with various plans currently under consideration by Interior, the U.S. remains on the trajectory that leads toward more greenhouse-gas emissions, not less.
If we are to move away from even worse droughts, extreme storm events, and wildfires, the time to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is now – not tomorrow, next year, or in the next decade. In the wake of the IRA’s passage, the practical effects of the law’s pro-fossil fuel provisions will depend on the choices that the Biden administration makes in the next few months. It can use its existing authority to revisit the fossil-fuel leasing program to reduce the Inflation Reduction Act’s threat to the climate, or point to the Act, shrug its shoulders, and revert to the business-as-usual that fossil fuel interests desperately want.
The millions of Americans who demand climate action will be watching closely.
Based in Portland, OR, Rebecca is Earthjustice's Public Affairs and Communications Officer for lands, wildlife, and oceans.
Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.