Climate and Reform in Focus: Interior's Oil and Gas Forum

In convening a forum on its federal oil and gas leasing program last week, the Interior Department opened up for public input its process to reshape its leasing program, which, as we previously wrote, is in dire need of reform and phaseout.

Kicking off the forum, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland provided a timely context for the essential work on fossil fuel leasing reforms Interior is undertaking: “Now is the time for all of us to have a frank conversation about the future of our shared resources,” she said, noting that “the pause in new oil and gas lease sales gives us space to look at the federal fossil fuel programs that haven’t been meaningfully examined or modernized in decades.”

As Interior determines how to reform its oil and gas leasing programs, we have the unprecedented opportunity to end new leasing and manage our public lands and waters in a way that combats–instead of contributes to–climate change.

Addressing climate change is crucial, and in our national interest

The forum incorporated voices from indigenous, labor, environmental, industry, and environmental justice communities, all of whom addressed the fact that drilling for and burning oil and gas contributes to climate change.

NRDC’s own Sharon Buccino delivered testimony urging the administration to end new leasing on public lands and waters, emphasizing that the “[p]ublic interest standards of existing law justify a halt to new leases. . . . The Federal Land Policy Management Act [FLPMA] requires that the Bureau of Land Management manage the public’s lands so they are, and I quote, ‘utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.’ FLPMA defines multiple use as ‘harmonious and coordinated management of various resources without permanent impairment of the productivity of the land and the quality of the environment. Leasing that leads to catastrophic climate change does not meet this standard.

The pause on lease sales does not impact permitting and development on valid existing leases

Onshore, the oil and gas industry holds leases covering 26 million acres. Offshore, their current holdings cover another 12 million acres. Those lands and waters are already leased and remain unaffected by President Biden’s leasing pause. Similarly, industry has at its disposal well over 7,000 drilling permits—greenlights to drill new wells to produce even more oil and gas—that were unaffected by the leasing pause. That 38 million acres is the size of Georgia, and what’s more, onshore less than 50 percent is being used for production, while offshore, only about 20 percent is being used for production.

Put simply: on federal public lands and ocean waters, there’s room for industry to grow or sustain what they already have...for years.

There’s no such thing as a low-carbon barrel of oil

Instead of engaging on any of the issues or areas of possible reform raised by other presenters, oil and gas industry representatives spent their time assuring Department of Interior staff and the audience that they don’t deny the basic science of climate change. It’s an ironic posture for them to try and assume, given that the core argument they delivered to Interior was that their products—which are part of the global supply of fossils driving runaway climate change—are part of the climate solution.

But their aim was clearly misdirection, not meaningful engagement. After news broke the morning of the forum, industry representatives were again pleased to announce their endorsement of a carbon tax, whipped out like a hidden ace to divert attention from the fundamental truth at hand: burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and needs to end.

They went on to offer a truly devious piece of greenwashing: not only do strong U.S. regulations—which they spent the last four years trying to destroy in partnership with the Trump administration—make U.S. oil “low carbon,” but new technologies will make it even lower carbon. Here’s the problem: it’s the burning of the oil that is the major driver of climate change, and nothing, aside from stopping that burning, is going to change that fundamental challenge.

In other words: a climate safe world is a world in which we cease to burn fossil fuels—full stop—as quickly as possible.

Oil well and flare in North Park, Colorado
Photo: Jack Dempsey/Flickr

A wide range of stakeholders made it clear: the current leasing system needs major reform

Whether its pollution inflicted on frontline communities near oil and gas installations or wasted resources, this much is clear: the federal oil and gas leasing system is causing harm and needs serious reform. Many of the forum speakers expressed this sentiment, including Mario Atencio of the Navajo Nation non-profit Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), who highlighted the destructive effects of oil and gas production on Indigenous communities in New Mexico.

Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for the environmental organization Earthworks flagged their work identifying major, and common, pollution events taking place at all types of oil and gas installations. And Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado Law School, spoke about the long list of reforms government watchdogs, Congress, and others have spent at least a decade pushing Interior to adopt, including: bonding, noncompetitive leasing, fiscal management, inspection and enforcement, and lease suspensions.

There are serious issues with offshore oil and gas leasing as well: “for more than 50 years, the oil and gas industry has dominated the Gulf Coast region to the detriment of black communities who are engulfed in the massive amounts of toxic solutions from oil refining and manufacturing,” said Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. It is time we listen to those who bear the greatest burden of the oil and gas industry.

Nothing in the law requires leasing of our federal waters, and in its next five-year program the Biden Administration should not offer new leases - we simply can’t afford to keep drilling.

Clean energy jobs are well-paying, here, and poised for further growth

Both panelists in the discussion of labor emphasized how important oil and gas jobs are to middle class Americans. Well-paying job opportunities are crucial to the wellbeing of our country, but it’s also important that those job don’t contribute to deadly climate change. Indeed, a predicate for stable family and community economics is a livable planet, not one facing accelerating climate change.

As it turns out, a lot of research and ideas about a just transition have already been published and the jobs which can result from getting this policy right do pay well. Analysis of wages in renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization and storage, clean fuels and clean vehicles showed that workers in those sectors in 2019 earned a median hourly wage of $23.89 compared with the national median wage of $19.14. The analysis also showed that in many clean energy sectors, jobs are more likely than the rest of the private sector to be unionized and include benefits such as health care and retirement. This is especially important to consider in the realm of organized labor, where, at least for jobs tied to fossil fuel extraction, only 5.6 percent of workers were union members in 2020.

Many clean energy jobs also paid better than fossil fuel jobs. Jobs in coal, natural gas and petroleum fuels paid $24.37 an hour, while solar and wind jobs combined for a $24.85 median hourly wage. Clean energy industries in 2019 employed 3.3 million Americans – about three times more workers than fossil fuels did that year. What’s more, unlike fossil fuel jobs, clean energy jobs are available in every state, regardless of geology or geography.

It’s time to move away from fossil fuels and find new ways to create prosperity and opportunity

Indigenous, industry, labor, and environmental stakeholders alike acknowledged the importance of combatting climate change and the need for Interior to reflect that need in its oil and gas leasing program reforms. For too long we’ve sold off our public resources at a steep discount and exacerbated the climate crisis while poisoning frontline and indigenous communities. But by addressing climate change we can also build prosperity. Jacqui Patterson reminded us that false narratives tell us there is an inverse relationship between protecting the environment and opportunities to prosper.” Rather than expand or maintain the leasing program, Interior needs to end new leasing and put resources into solving climate change, building a just transition for workers and communities, and following its mandate of managing public lands and waters to meet the present and future needs of the American people.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

Valerie Cleland

Oceans Advocate, Nature Program

Lauren Kubiak

Senior Policy Analyst, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.