The Biden administration announced Friday it is planning as many as three new oil and gas drilling lease sales in federal waters over the next five years – a move that could anger Republicans, pro-industry groups and climate advocates alike and that will likely prompt legal challenges.
But the plan, which the Interior Department was required by law to create, comes with a trade-off: It allows officials to offer more federal waters for clean wind energy.
The five-year drilling plan “represents the smallest number of oil and gas lease sales in history,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. The administration had previously proposed more drilling areas – up to 11 possible sales.
The three sales would all take place in the Gulf of Mexico, scheduled for 2025, 2027 and 2029. The plan nixed the possibility of lease sales off Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
The plan “sets a course for the Department to support the growing offshore wind industry and protect against the potential for environmental damage and adverse impacts to coastal communities,” Haaland said.
The Inflation Reduction Act required the Interior Department to propose a certain number of oil and gas leases in federal waters in exchange for the ability to propose clean offshore wind energy projects. Three was the lowest number that would allow it to move forward with offshore wind lease sales around the country, the department said, given the requirements of the law.
Tying clean wind energy to fossil fuel drilling was a key demand of Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who wrote much of the bill.
Biden’s plan is in stark contrast to that of the Trump administration, which originally proposed 47 lease sales off all coastal areas in the US, including the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, over the five years from 2024 to 2029.
But even three drilling sales will frustrate climate advocates, who have pressed the administration to take a tougher line on offshore drilling and wanted no new oil and gas lease sales approved. Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental litigation firm, said she believes the administration could satisfy the requirements of law by doing the bare minimum.
“They could achieve all of the wind development they have planned with only one oil and gas sale in the five-year program,” Hardy said. “The agency can still hold those sales without any more oil and gas leasing. Under their regulations, all they need to do is hold an oil and gas sale in order to issue the wind leases that were sold.”
That argument likely would not go over well with Republicans in Congress or Manchin, who has frequently blasted the administration for what he characterizes as anti-energy policies in pursuit of climate action.
Heading into an election year, Republicans are also keen to tie any administration actions that seemingly pare down oil and gas drilling to raising gas prices – two things that are largely unrelated as gas prices are tied to the whims of global markets.
As CNN reported last year, the White House was involved in crafting Interior’s proposed offshore drilling plan, two sources familiar with the discussions told CNN, a sign of how sensitive top officials are to the politics around oil and gas decisions.
Interior’s pared-back plan will likely prompt legal challenges from the oil industry and Republican states. And even with the reduced number of proposed projects, the five-year plan could still set up the next fight between the Biden administration and Gulf Coast communities and environmental advocates who want the administration to stop approving new oil and gas projects altogether.
With past major new oil projects that have been approved, such as the Willow project in Alaska, the Biden administration has frequently said it must comply with laws that require certain projects to go forward. Still, that answer hasn’t satisfied environmental and youth climate groups – who have warned that new oil and gas project approvals risks alienating young voters ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Hardy said that the Biden administration “still has a responsibility to minimize harm to Gulf communities” as they decide the short-term future of the federal offshore oil and gas leasing program.