The Biden administration, under fire from climate activists over its move to restart oil and gas leasing on federal lands, is seeking to shift blame to a court ruling as it seeks to navigate dueling climate and energy pressures.
The administration has emphasized that its Friday decision to open up about 144,000 acres of publicly-owned lands for oil and gas drilling was caused by a court order — and has indicated in recent days that its preference would be to not hold any lease sales at all.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said the court ruling was “forcing our hand” and that President Biden’s policy is to “ban additional leasing”.
“Today’s action…was the result of a court injunction that we continue to appeal, and it’s not in line with the president’s policy, which is to ban additional leasing,” Psaki said.
Asked if new leases will undercut Biden’s climate goals, Psaki reiterated that “these leases are not in line with our policy or the president’s view.”
The Psaki remarks followed a tweet by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday. She said the action “was the result of a court injunction that we continue to appeal, and I have used my authority to reduce by 80 precent the areas to lease, impose stringent environmental safeguards, and ensure the American people receive their fair share.”
The oil and gas leasing program will restart with 173 parcels of land, the administration said Friday. On Monday, it revealed that about 132,000 of the acres up for lease would be in Wyoming and auctioned off in June.
The move generated push back from left-wing environmental advocates, who argued that the administration should try to limit drilling as much as possible — as well as industry and Republicans — who argued that the sale was too small and took issues with other modifications like higher fees for drillers.
Some observers have blamed the decision on the administration’s desire to show it is doing something about high gas prices, even though the new leases are not expected to have an immediate impact since it takes an average of more than 4 years for production to begin.
“I think what’s happened, frankly, is that the Biden administration is responding to pressure for new oil and gas development that has come about as a result of the war in Ukraine,” said Mark Squillace, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
He added that the administration could have proposed an even smaller lease sale to minimize drilling.
Some also noted they are facing competing pressures, including from environmental activists.
“There is a bit of a political tightrope to walk,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities environmental group, which was pleased with some of the modifications the administration made to the sale.
The June 2021 court order that the Biden administration is blaming prevented the administration from “implementing” a pause issued by the president on new oil and gas leases on public lands or waters.
On one of his first few days in office, Biden directed a pause in new leasing for parcels of land on which companies can bid to drill.
The pause was described as temporary and “pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices.”
However, the administration has since carried out a review of the program, issuing a report in November that calls for modifications like those made to the upcoming sale.
It’s not clear whether the pause would still be in place without the court order, since the review appears to have been completed.
Asked about this and what the administration’s policy would be if not for the injunction, an Interior Department spokesperson indicated administration opposition to new drilling.
The spokesperson said that Biden has called for no new drilling, an effort that is supported by Haaland.
While Biden was on the campaign trail, he said he would ban new oil and gas permits on public lands. But in office, the administration has instead signaled support for modified oil and gas leasing and permitting. The November report reviewing the pause on new lease sales, for example, called for companies to have to pay higher fees on new onshore drilling lands that are leased.
The disconnect between the administration’s policies so far and its rhetoric this week has left some advocates confused and skeptical.
“All those reforms…they’re only eligible if there’s a new lease offered, so that reform agenda is contingent on new leasing,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“I don’t feel optimistic right now because I’m not seeing their actions match their words,” Spivak said.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group that has sued over the administration’s leasing pause, said she hopes to use the Biden administration’s rhetoric against it.
“I think we will use that rhetoric in court,” Sgamma said. “They continue to show no signs that they are going to comply with quarterly lease sales.