President Joe Biden took a highly anticipated step on Wednesday toward fulfilling a bold but controversial campaign promise: ending oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters.
The halt on leasing is among the most attention-grabbing measures, but it’s not likely to be the most consequential item in a suite of executive actions announced by the White House as part of the new administration’s efforts to rein in climate change. Included in them is another campaign pledge to conserving at least 30 percent of the nation’s land and seas by 2030—supporters call the idea 30 by 30. Biden’s orders also establish a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy; firmly plant climate considerations in national security and foreign policy; and create a government-wide initiative to promote environmental justice, among other steps.
“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis and we can’t wait any longer,” Biden said before signing the orders. “We see it with our own eyes, we feel it, we know it in our bones, and it’s time to act.”
Environmental advocates welcomed the administration’s latest moves after four years of federal climate denial and inaction. “This is the single biggest day for climate action in more than a decade,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, in a press release. “We’re thrilled that this administration is taking a whole of government approach that puts bold climate action, clean energy, and environmental justice at the heart of their domestic and foreign policy agenda.”
The leasing pause is a striking departure from the Trump administration, during which the Interior Department offered up more than 25 million acres of public lands for lease, along with more than 78 million acres offshore. Energy companies bought 5.6 million acres of those onshore leases and 5 million acres offshore, according to Interior. Among them were nine leases covering 440,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that the Trump administration finalized on its last full day in office after a sale that raised far less money for the federal government than pro-industry politicians had projected.
The government’s approach to leasing has serious implications for climate change because nearly one-quarter of the country’s emissions come from fossil fuel activity on public lands. Energy development on federal property also has significant impacts on wildlife, and is a major factor, for example, in the decline of Greater Sage-Grouse populations across the West.
“Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, in a press release.
However, this initial step doesn’t go as far as the outright ban on leasing and permitting that Biden campaigned on, and it won’t have much immediate effect on oil and gas production, experts say. It halts new leases while Interior conducts a close review of federal leasing and permitting practices, but it does not stop active drilling or address leases and permits that the government has already issued. Federal leases give their holders 10 years to start producing oil and gas, and they can be renewed as long as the fuels keep flowing. Energy companies have already secured leases covering 26 million acres on land and 12 million acres on water and hold around 7,700 approved but unused permits to drill.
“It’s big news, just because of the political nature of this, but in terms of its impact on oil and gas leasing on public lands, I don’t think it’s that significant,” says Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado. The bigger impact, he says, could come after Interior’s review if the department opts to make it harder for companies to extend leases, or increases the fees they pay for using public lands.
Nevertheless, the blowback from the fossil fuel industry was swift. The American Petroleum Institute said in a press release that the pause “appears to be a first step toward a policy of banning natural gas and oil development on federal lands and waters.” Before the workday ended on Wednesday, the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, sued the administration, alleging that Biden’s executive order exceeds his authority and violates federal public-lands laws.
But Hannah Wiseman, a law professor at Penn State University and an expert on oil and gas policy, says the administration is likely on safe legal ground. The Mineral Leasing Act requires quarterly lease sales for eligible lands, but it gives the Interior secretary discretion not to lease for a variety of reasons, she says, and nothing in the law prohibits a moratorium. “That’s simply not in there,” she says.
If halting leasing was largely a symbolic move, other of Biden’s actions Wednesday are likely to play a major role in his administration’s effort to eliminate carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. He called on the Interior Department to identify ways to double offshore wind energy by 2030, for instance, and directed federal agencies to purchase electric vehicles—a significant step, given the government’s vast fleet of nearly 650,000 autos. He also ordered the government to produce, by April 22—Earth Day, when Biden announced he’ll host an international climate summit—a formal emissions-reduction target as part of its renewed participation in the Paris climate agreement. And he established a working group to steer federal resources toward creating new jobs and revitalizing communities whose economies have depended on fossil fuels.
In addition, Biden signaled that his administration will tap into the power of the nation’s forests, farms, and natural areas in fighting and adapting to climate change. By one oft-cited measure, roughly 12 percent of the country’s land area and about 26 percent of its ocean is currently protected. Conserving 30 percent—both as protected areas on public lands and by working with landowners—will soak up more carbon, help wildlife adapt to a changing climate, and protect more habitat to confront the staggering loss of biodiversity, proponents say. Scientists have called for protecting at least 30 percent of the entire planet, and more than 50 nations have pledged to do their part.
The new 30-by-30 directive calls on federal agencies to produce a report within 90 days that lays out a plan for how to reach the goal. “At a time when one-third of our wildlife are threatened with extinction, and sage grouse populations in particular have been on a precipitous decline, this bold plan will conserve and restore critical wildlife habitat while creating jobs and boosting rural economies,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, in a press release.
Biden’s orders also give agency officials 90 days to come up with a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative. In this modern answer to the Civilian Conservation Corps created during the Great Depression, young workers will restore habitat, plant trees, improve outdoor recreation access, and more. The program will “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs,” the White House said.