Biden’s Inner Circle Debates Future of Offshore Drilling

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s top aides are weighing whether to ban new oil and gas drilling off America’s coasts, a move that would elate climate activists but could leave the administration vulnerable to Republican accusations that it is exacerbating an energy crunch as gas prices soar.

By law, the Department of Interior is required to release a plan for new oil and gas leases in federal waters every five years. Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, has promised Congress a draft of the Biden plan will be available by June 30.

With the administration acutely aware that inflation and high prices at the pump are weighing on voters ahead of November’s midterm elections, the White House is shaping the plan, two administration officials said.

Discussions about whether and where to allow drilling are being led by Bruce Reed, the deputy chief of staff, and include chief of staff Ron Klain and longtime adviser Steve Ricchetti, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.

“The Biden administration is in a difficult place,” said Sara Rollet Gosman, a professor of environment and energy law at the University of Arkansas. “If the Department of the Interior decides to eliminate offshore lease sales or to offer only a few sales, it does the right thing for the climate. But it also gives ammunition to fossil fuel companies to argue that President Biden doesn’t care about high gas prices.”

Several people familiar with the administration’s decision-making said it is likely to block new drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the face of widespread bipartisan opposition from members of Congress and leaders from coastal states. The eastern Gulf of Mexico has been closed to drilling since 1995.

Still under consideration is whether to continue to allow lease sales in parts of the Arctic Ocean as well as the western and central Gulf of Mexico.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden pledged to end new drilling on public lands and in federal waters. Environmental activists have argued offshore drilling has no place in a clean energy future. They are pressuring the administration to prohibit drilling throughout the entire outer continental shelf to reduce the United States’ contribution to climate change.

“We’ve been very clear in our conversations with Interior that we expect the president to uphold his campaign commitment to ending new leasing,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director at Oceana, an environmental advocacy organization.

The International Energy Agency has said nations must stop approving new coal mines, or oil and gas fields in order to hold global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which the likelihood significantly increases of catastrophic heat waves, drought, flooding and widespread extinctions. Earth has already heated an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.

If Mr. Biden issues new drilling leases, he risks alienating climate-minded voters who Democrats need to turn out for the midterm elections this fall, said Tré Easton, a Democratic strategist.

“Joe Biden breaking a major campaign promise and extending new leases will have no bearing on energy prices in this country,” he said. “It’s a distraction and I really hope the White House recognizes it as such.”

Areas made available for leasing under the blueprint would be auctioned through 2027. It can take years between a lease sale and the production of gas or oil from offshore drilling.

Still, the fossil fuel industry and Republicans are blaming record high gas prices on the Biden administration, accusing it of slowing fossil fuel production.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden called on Congress to temporarily pause the federal gas tax to give motorists some relief. The administration has also released strategic petroleum reserves, suspended a ban on summertime sales of higher-ethanol gasoline blends and urged American oil producers to ramp up production.

Republicans say the administration is trying to have it both ways.

“The administration can’t pretend to support oil and gas production while doing everything in their power to slow down and block expanded production on public land,” Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said at a recent hearing where he and others grilled Ms. Haaland on the five-year plan.

The draft five-year plan for the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program is expected to include several options, including a “no action alternative” — that is, not offering any new lease sales, which has happened in the past.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the internal deliberations and said no decisions have been finalized.

“The department is hard at work developing the five year plan. I have no update on timing,” Ms. Schwartz said.

At one stage, the Biden administration had considered limiting new drilling to the central and western Gulf of Mexico, according to three people who were briefed on the matter.

Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy companies, said that would be harmful to consumers. New leases in the Gulf of Mexico could mean an additional 2.4 million barrels of crude a day — an amount that “can have global impact on the marketplace,” he said.

Last month the Biden administration canceled lease sales in federal waters off Alaska’s Cook Inlet, citing a lack of industry interest.

The Cook Inlet basin, at one time Alaska’s primary source of oil, is now mainly a source of natural gas for local utilities and large-scale projects have been rare in recent years, energy experts said. Still, the industry wants the Arctic waters available for future possible leases.

Once the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Management releases the five year plan, it will be subject to a period of public comment before it is finalized. Past presidents have used the plan to alternately fling open the door to unchecked development or slam it shut to prevent new drilling.

President Obama banned drilling in portions of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and later invoked an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, to also ban drilling along areas along the Atlantic coastline.

President Trump tried to open all coastal waters of the United States to oil and gas drilling, including the areas protected by the Obama administration.

But by the end of his administration and under intense pressure from Florida Republicans who feared drilling would hurt tourism, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that prohibits drilling for 10 years off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Mr. Trump’s broader plan was never finalized. Ms. Haaland has told lawmakers that the Trump administration stopped work on a five-year plan in 2018 and “varying conflicting litigation” contributed to delays, she said.

The offshore oil and gas leasing plan has landed in the center of a debate over the administration’s oil and gas decisions. Shortly after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order to pause the issuing of new leases — but a successful legal challenge from Republican states and the oil industry has forced the administration to hold new lease sales.

The administration is appealing that ruling. At the same time it is defending itself in another Republican-led lawsuit that is seeking to prevent the government from considering the economic cost of climate change that results from drilling and other actions it permits.

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