Joe Biden’s administration on Friday unveiled a five-year offshore oil and gas drilling development plan that blocks all new drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans within US territorial waters while allowing some lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s south coast.
The plan, which has not been finalized, could allow up to 11 lease sales but gives the interior department the right to make none. It comes two days after the US supreme court curbed the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to the climate crisis.
Environmental groups criticized the plan, and some expressed concern that the administration was backing away from the president’s “no more drilling” pledge during a March 2020 one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders.
Biden at the time said, “No more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore – no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill – period.”
Environmental groups also argued that new leasing would impede the Biden administration’s goal to cut carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 in an effort to keep global heating under the threshold of 1.5C (2.7F).
“President Biden campaigned on climate leadership, but he seems poised to let us down at the worst possible moment,” said Brady Bradshaw, senior oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The reckless approval of yet more offshore drilling would mean more oil spills, more dead wildlife and more polluted communities. We need a five-year plan with no new leases.”
Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch said: “President Biden has called the climate crisis the existential threat of our time, but the administration continues to pursue policies that will only make it worse.”
On Friday, the interior secretary, Deb Haaland, said she and the president “had made clear our commitment to transition to a clean energy economy”. The department’s proposal, she said, was “an opportunity for the American people to consider and provide input on the future of offshore oil and gas leasing”.
The proposal to sell off 11 leases must go through a series of reviews and a period of public comment that is likely to be contentious. Most of the new leases would be offered in parts of the western and central Gulf of Mexico, far from where legislators have outlawed new drilling near Florida.
The executive director of Healthy Gulf, Cyn Sarthou, said the organization was troubled by the apparent change of policy.
“Now is not the time to continue business as usual,” Sarthou said. “The continuing threat posed by climate change requires the nation to focus on a transition to renewable energy.”
Nearly 95% of US offshore oil production and 71% of offshore natural gas production occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. About 15% of oil production comes from offshore drilling.
The proposed leases come after sales in two regions of the Gulf were abandoned because of legal challenges.
Advocates for the oil industry welcomed the new proposal, including the Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“Our allies across the free world are in desperate need of American oil and gas,” Manchin said in a statement. “I am disappointed to see that ‘zero’ lease sales is even an option on the table.”
One of the proposed new leases could be granted in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, an area that is already highly vulnerable to the effects of climate breakdown. “This decision is incredibly disappointing in the face of ongoing climate impacts that are already being deeply felt by our community around Alaska,” said the advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper, Liz Mering.
Mering added: “Alaskans have worked to ensure that Lower Cook Inlet remains this incredible place for our fisheries and tourism industry, which support a thriving local economy. Thirty-three years after the horrific Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaskans still remember and recognize the risk of more oil fouling our waters, killing our fish and hurting Alaskans.”
The proposal came a day after the administration held its first auction of onshore lease sales, drawing bids of $22m from energy companies seeking drilling rights on about 110 square miles of public land across Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.
After the sale, the Western Environmental Law Center attorney Melissa Hornbein said: “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows us that burning fossil fuels from existing leases on federal lands is incompatible with a livable climate.”