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Biden approves new offshore oil leases, faces hits by both sides

The Biden administration said Friday it will approve just three offshore oil and gas lease sales through 2029 — the smallest offshore oil drilling plan in history and one designed to narrowly comply with limits set by a divided Congress.

The decision reflects how Biden is grappling with the realities of divided government and his own climate agenda, including his 2020 campaign pledge to end new offshore oil projects. In a heavily negotiated landmark climate bill last year, Congress tied the fate of offshore wind development — a Biden priority — to approval of new oil leases.

With its announcement Friday, the administration argued it was meeting its legal mandates while still furthering the transition away from fossil fuels.

In a statement, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the plan represents “the smallest number of oil and gas lease sales in history.” She added that it sets a course “to support the growing offshore wind industry and protect against the potential for environmental damage and adverse impacts to coastal communities.”

The plan will delay any new oil lease sales until 2025, leaving as much as a two-year gap between sales that historically have been scheduled for several times a year. The Interior Department will also lease only in the Gulf of Mexico — dismissing proposed sales for Alaska’s Cook Inlet — as the administration seeks to limit fossil fuel production and zero out U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to an announcement from the Interior Department.

Administration officials said they couldn’t go further because of provisions Congress approved last year that require offshore oil leasing in order for Interior to do offshore wind leasing. A maximum of three sales — one each planned for 2025, 2027 and 2029 — are the fewest the Interior Department said it could do under the law and keep expanding its offshore wind program as it intended through 2030.

President Biden has called for slashing U.S. emissions to combat climate change, even as he has pushed policies that would increase carbon emissions. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

While Biden had promised as a candidate to end drilling on federal land and waters, he’s been forced to facilitate some fossil fuel projects in the face of legal and political constraints. Fossil-fuel advocate Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) engineered the requirements tying Biden’s offshore wind leasing to offshore oil leasing, he said, to help ensure the country has a steady, affordable, domestic supply of energy, including oil and gas.

Biden’s decision Friday isn’t likely to please many. In anticipation of a plan that would continue at least some new offshore oil leasing, environmental groups were releasing statements Thursday criticizing the president. Oil industry advocates released statements saying Biden was far too restrictive.

To boost offshore wind, Biden is about to approve new oil leasing

The environmental advocacy group Oceana said the decision is “beyond disappointing,” and gives support to oil production that will worsen the effects of climate change. “President Biden is unfortunately showing the world that it’s okay to continue to prioritize polluters over real climate solutions,” Beth Lowell, the group’s U.S. vice president, said in a statement.

The industry’s largest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, said the limits would weaken the security provided by domestic energy, and potentially further feed inflation. “The Biden administration is choosing failed energy policies that are adding to the pain Americans are feeling at the pump,” the group’s leader Mike Sommers said in a statement.

Interior officials tried to emphasize how far they had scaled back the program. Predecessors in the Trump administration had made a preliminary proposal — never turned into a final plan — for 47 lease sales in all coastal areas around the country, the Interior Department said.

The gas pump costs that consumers face have been a political concern for Biden since he came to office. Crude oil prices have been rebounding for months, recently cresting $90 a barrel for the first time in almost a year. About 15 percent of U.S. oil production comes from drilling in federal waters.

Even so, the three-sale plan announced Friday is less than a third of the smallest plan in recent history. Since 1992, no five-year plan has had fewer than 11 lease sales; most have had 15 to 20, according to data from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The administration had already ruled out leasing for the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans a year ago when it first unveiled its options. The proposed lease areas in the Gulf of Mexico — largely off Texas and Louisiana — are spots where oil and gas companies already have operations, including rigs and pipelines.

Some analysts have estimated that Gulf of Mexico oil also produces some of the lowest impact on the climate, especially compared to imported oil the country would need to replace it. But offshore drilling has remained one of the most unpopular sources of energy. It’s been a major target of environmentalists who often point to the historic explosion and spill from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

With the 2024 election looming, the president’s actions have become an issue both for Biden and Democrats, some of whom fear losing support from climate-concerned voters, especially in swing states. Biden and his officials have faced repeated protests this year over his reluctance to more fully restrict fossil-fuel projects, especially on federal lands.

A heckler interrupted him during a speech in Arizona Thursday, citing that very issue.

“I worked hard to elect President Biden,” the progressive organizer Kai Newkirk said Thursday afternoon in posts on X, formerly known as Twitter. “And conscience compelled me to interrupt his speech today to ask why he has yet to declare a climate emergency. Why he’s broken his promise of no new drilling on federal lands.”

One of the few groups to cheer the decision was the American Clean Power Association, a wind and solar industry group. It wants the administration to keep speeding up its leasing process, saying that without that the administration is at risk of failing to hit its goal of adding 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by the end of the decade.

“It’s a positive step forward that they’re moving on a five-year plan,” Frank Macchiarola, the association’s chief policy officer, said Thursday ahead of the detailed announcement. “This gives the administration the opportunity now to move as swiftly as possible to (auction) wind leases.”

Interior is likely to formally finish the plan near year’s end. Now that the administration has announced its final program, the next step is a 60-day waiting period before the Interior secretary can formally approve it.

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