(CNN) – The Biden administration released a proposed plan on Friday for where the federal government intends to hold offshore oil and gas lease sales in federal waters for the next five years. The plan would mainly limit drilling to the Gulf of Mexico, with one proposed lease sale in waters off Alaska.
The Interior Department’s five-year offshore leasing plan is required by law. But it comes at a time when the Biden administration is caught between conflicting goals: its own commitments to slash planet-warming emissions from fossil fuels, and intense political pressure over high gas prices.
The plan was also released the day after the Supreme Court ruled federal Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate planet-warming emissions from power plants. The opinion was roundly criticized by environmental advocates, scientists and the Biden administration for handcuffing the EPA just as more action is needed on the climate crisis.
But the Biden administration isn’t ruling out new offshore drilling in the next half decade. Instead, Interior is proposing a range of options; from no new drilling to 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico — where the vast majority of offshore drilling already occurs — as well as one proposed sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. However, Interior recently canceled an approved Cook Inlet sale due to lack of interest from the oil and gas industry.
The plan would also remove public waters in the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from drilling, which was a widely anticipated move.
In a statement accompanying the proposed plan, Interior Sec. Deb Haaland stressed the Biden administration’s focus on spurring renewable energy.
“From Day One, President Biden and I have made clear our commitment to transition to a clean energy economy,” Haaland said in a statement. “Today, we put forward an opportunity for the American people to consider and provide input on the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The time for the public to weigh in on our future is now.”
The plan will be finalized after a 90-day public comment period, though that process could take much longer.
The White House has been involved in crafting Interior’s offshore drilling plan, two sources familiar with the discussions told CNN, a sign of how sensitive the White House is right now to the politics around oil and gas decisions. Republicans and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin have criticized Interior’s handling of oil and gas leases — saying they should be increasing domestic production.
But communication with outside groups — or even Congress — on Interior’s offshore strategy has been limited, a concern that spans party lines. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s spokesperson Karina Borger said the Alaska Republican’s “expectations are very low” for the plan, “in part because the Department of the Interior has refused to provide a timeline, details, or any briefings about it.”
Interior released its proposed plan the day after the current plan expired, meaning there will be a gap between the two. It will take months for the plan to go through a public comment period and be finalized, as well as for an accompanying environmental impact statement to be completed.
An Interior Department official stressed Friday that the full range of options in the proposal — no drilling or 11 sales — will be given equal consideration during the public comment period.
“This is a multi-step process that is traditionally a winnowing process,” the official said.
The official also said the size of the leases is not being considered during this part of the process, and administration officials are instead focusing on their location.
The official said discussions began “immediately” at the start of the Biden administration on how to go about leasing “all within the context of the climate imperative and the need to transition to a clean energy economy.”
But Congressional Republicans and Manchin have heaped criticism on the delay.
Manchin said in a statement Friday that he is “pleased that the Department has finally released their long-overdue proposal,” but that he is “disappointed to see that ‘zero’ lease sales is even an option on the table.”
On the other hand, Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, supports the “zero” lease sale option.
“Holding any new offshore oil and gas lease sales over the next five years is a lose-lose for Americans. It will do nothing to help lower prices at the pump, and it will make our emissions goals virtually impossible to achieve,” Grijalva said in a statement.
Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, told CNN that this proposal is a step in the right direction.
“I think everyone is disappointed to see that Alaska was included at all in the options, however it is incredibly heartening that there is no preferred alternative here, and the no drilling option for the first time we can see is on par with the other options,” Goldfuss said. “Usually the no action alternative is done pro forma, but here they give it consideration.”
At odds with Biden’s climate agenda
Environmental groups aggressively and successfully fought a massive offshore lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico the Biden administration scheduled last year.
Those groups have anticipated the administration would hold some lease sales in the Gulf because of the current political pressure. But Interior’s plan still isn’t in line with Biden’s climate goals, said environmental attorney Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice.
“The reality is 98% of offshore oil development in America has taken place in the western and central Gulf,” Caputo told CNN. “For an administration to try to take credit … that’s not impressive. It’s like me announcing I hereby am going to restrict the location where I eat dinner to my dining room.”
Caputo and fellow Earthjustice senior attorney Brettny Hardy said that even with industry and Republicans saying the Biden administration isn’t encouraging domestic production to help high gas costs, these lease sales wouldn’t do much to help in the short-term. These lease sales won’t be fully developed for about 10 years.
“The oil industry is trying to put pressure and make it sound like it’s a dire situation with the gas prices, and leasing would fix this situation when it just wouldn’t,” Hardy told CNN.
With emissions from fossil fuels steadily rising and extreme heat and other climate impacts noticeable, advocates said to expect more legal action to try to stop the administration’s leasing program in its tracks.
Earthjustice and other environmental groups have a successful track record of suing the Biden administration to stop lease sales; they won a suit in January that stopped and invalidated a massive offshore lease sale in the Gulf.
“When they make bad decisions about the federal fossil fuel program and where those decisions are illegal, we’re going to go to court,” Caputo said. “We’re of the view that everybody needs to follow the law and part of following the law is following the science.”