Biden’s Fossil Fuel Leasing Pause Is Bold Climate Action

The moratorium on fossil fuel leasing is a key step in addressing the climate crisis.

An open-pit coal mine in Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming

Lance Cheung/USDA

President Biden is pausing fossil fuel leasing of federal lands and waters under a climate-focused executive order he issued today. It’s a move made necessary by the accelerating climate crisis and the previous administration’s irresponsible rush to rubber-stamp drilling permits and auction off public lands at bargain-basement prices.

Fossil fuel leasing on federal lands has become an issue of pressing concern over the past four years. As the global climate crisis has arrived in apocalyptic force with unprecedented hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and droughts hitting communities at a dizzying rate, the need for bold action to stabilize our climate has never been greater. These are the very real impacts of the continued rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and the Biden administration is confronting our single-greatest national and global challenge head-on.

Federal lands and waters are a great place to start. According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, nearly 25 percent of annual U.S. emissions can be attributed to the extraction, processing, and burning of fossil fuels produced on federal lands. 

This executive order places a moratorium on the leasing of federal lands for oil and gas production the extent possible under the law. By taking this pause, the Biden administration is creating the conditions for meaningful examination of a broken system in need of wholesale reform.

More specifically, the order also directs the Department of the Interior to:

  • Complete a programmatic review of the on- and offshore oil and gas leasing programs, taking into consideration the President’s overarching goal of achieving an "irreversible path" to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.
  • While the order does not place a moratorium on federal coal leasing—due to any current or future leasing being uneconomic and therefore under a de facto moratorium—it makes clear that all fossil fuels will be subject to that same careful programmatic review.
  • Importantly, it preserves tribal sovereignty in the area of mineral leasing, creating space for tribes to work with the U.S. government to further their economic security in the ways they deem in their best interests.

Days before the ink was dry on the order, industry talking heads began circulating their usual disingenuous arguments about why today is still not the day to take climate change seriously. But let’s clear the air here. For the past four years, this industry incessantly lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to eliminate as many environmental and climate safeguards as possible, causing incalculable harms to our communities, water, air, and land. As their reactions make clear, their focus remains locking America and the world into burning the fuels that are exacerbating the climate situation on a daily basis. It’s time to call their bluff.

It’s time to call industry’s bluff.

Biden’s action is not the end of fossil fuels. Drilling can and will continue, and the work to complete our full transition away from fossil fuels in only beginning. The fossil fuel industry secured federal leases at a breakneck pace under the Trump administration. During its final months, companies began stockpiling the permits necessary to produce oil, gas, and coal from those leases. Absent a prohibition on developing those leases or a direct revocation of those permits, industry faces no obstacles to continuing with existing production or even drilling new wells. Indeed, a Congressional review of the federal fossil fuel leasing program completed in 2018 found that nearly 40 percent of active leases were not under production at that time, so the industry has plenty of leases left to use. And that number likely only grew under the Trump administration, which sold off rights to more than four million acres—an area bigger than the state of Connecticut.

We don’t need new leases to meet domestic needs. Since the lifting of the crude oil export ban, U.S. exports of fossil fuels have surged, so industry scare tactics about domestic energy security are pure fiction. The United States is producing oil and gas in record amounts and is now selling more than 25 percent of our daily oil production abroad (more than the entire amount produced within federal lands and waters).

Rural communities need a stable economy rather than busts that follow boomsA race to irresponsibly expand U.S. fossil fuel production has led to consistent oversupply issues, which, when coupled with the demand shocks brought about by COVID-19, have helped keep prices very low. A history of poor financial management has compounded these industry challenges and led to a steady stream of bankruptcies and mergers. These dynamics only contribute to the boom-and-bust reality of fossil fuels, creating uncertainty and instability for economies that could flourish with a reinvestment of federal dollars toward establishing the clean energy economy of the future.

The climate crisis is upon us. With that crisis come extraordinary costs: an estimated $95 billion in 2020 was attributed to natural disasters fueled, in large part, by climate change. That’s nine times more than the revenues collected by the federal government from mineral leasing within federal lands and waters. As you start digging into the math, is there really any proof that federal oil and gas leasing and production benefit the American people?

Reforming a broken leasing system and laying the groundwork for a just transition for frontline communities and fossil fuel workers will create jobs, increase economic stability, and build the foundation for America’s energy future. Today’s executive order allows the Biden administration to carefully consider all of the questions this out-of-control fossil fuel leasing on public lands raises. In short, it creates the time and space to get this right—to ensure that U.S. public lands are part of the climate solution, instead of the problem. And it highlights the need to truly, intentionally manage a just transition for the fossil fuel workers and frontline communities who deserve new, stable careers as key partners in our clean energy transition

Several members of Congress have already offered proposals. An immediate step that will create jobs and ensure major environmental benefits for communities located near oil and gas production involves the cleanup and mitigation of abandoned wells on public and private lands. Another involves repurposing revenues from fossil fuel leasing and production to provide economic security and job training for a transitioning fossil fuel workforce. Finally, efforts to intelligently site renewable energy and provide financial incentives to states and counties similar to those they have long received from fossil fuel production will help diversify economies and spur local job creation.

Instead of catering to the industry that helped fuel the climate crisis and has decimated communities and environments around the United States and the world, we need to have the hard conversations about how to support communities still strongly bound to fossil fuels in making a just and equitable transition toward a clean energy, climate-safe future. We are decades too late into beginning this work, but today, the federal government is finally starting to get out of the fossil fuel business.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

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