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Biden administration punts on whether to open up more offshore drilling

·4 min read

The Biden administration is punting a decision on whether to open up more lease sales for offshore drilling.

In a statement issued Friday, the administration said it is still working on a plan, and that when issued it could include as many as 11 specific lease sales for offshore oil and gas drilling or as few as zero.

An Interior Department official said equal consideration is being given to scenarios with zero sales, some sales or all 11 sales.

The statement and department’s proposal for the program’s future was issued one day after a previous five-year offshore drilling plan expired. That plan had been finalized by the Obama administration.

The sales under consideration include an area in the Cook Inlet near Alaska, and as many as 10 sales in the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the country’s offshore drilling currently happens. Earlier this year, the department canceled a planned lease sale in Cook Inlet, citing lack of industry interest.

The move comes as the administration grapples with the politics of high gasoline prices, which recently reached as high as $5 per gallon nationally. It also follows a major Supreme Court decision curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to regulate the climate contributions of power plants.

And it comes as Democrats are still trying to sell their social and climate agenda to swing vote Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is generally supportive of fossil fuels.

Manchin, in a statement, said he was “pleased” that the department released its proposal, but “disappointed” that the zero-sale option is being considered.

“I hope the Administration will ultimately greenlight a plan that will expand domestic energy production, done in the cleanest way possible, while also taking the necessary steps to get our offshore leasing program back on track to give the necessary market signals to provide price relief for every American,” he said.

If the Biden administration eventually decides not to hold any new lease sales, the move will not affect offshore drilling that is currently underway, but it will prevent new drilling in the future.

It can take several years for offshore leases to bring new oil to the market, and so whatever decision it ultimately makes will not immediately impact oil supplies.

It is facing significant political pressure from both the right and the left on the issue, as industry has pushed for ample opportunities to expand drilling, citing high fuel prices.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, have invoked climate change to push the administration away from new offshore drilling.

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called any new lease sales in the years ahead a “lose-lose” for Americans.

“While I’m obviously glad to see a significant decrease in the amount of new potential offshore leasing compared to what the last administration proposed, I certainly don’t consider that a comforting standard,” he said in a statement. “We know that oil and gas companies are already hoarding 8 million acres of offshore leases they aren’t using. Handing them additional leases simply gives them more supply for manipulating the market and maximizing their profits, as we’ve already seen this with their record-breaking earnings year.”

The Interior official defended not deciding on a specific number of lease sales at this stage, saying it intended to put a range of options before the American people.

In a comparable proposal in 2016, the Obama administration scheduled 13 “potential” offshore lease sales, while a Trump plan that was never finalized proposed 47 lease sales.

The department on Friday released a schedule accompanying its proposed plan, saying the first lease sale could take place in 2023.

Of the remaining ten potential sales, as many as two could takes place in 2024, two could take place in 2025, three — including the Alaska sale — could take place in 2026, two could be in 2027 and one could be in 2028.

The proposed plan does not offer any leasing off the country’s East or West coasts or in the Alaskan Arctic.

The department released the plan – which is sure to have critics on both sides of the aisle – the day before a holiday weekend. It similarly released a separate major report pertaining to onshore drilling on Black Friday last year.

Updated at 7:45 p.m.

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