November 2023, Vol. 250, No. 11

Editor's Notebook

Editor’s Notebook: It Could Have Been Worse, Revisited

By Michael Reed, Editor-in-Chief

(Editor’s note: Being the optimist that I am, in the December 2020 Editor’s Notebook, I wrote about how the not-quite then official beginning of the Age of Biden, might not be as bad as some in the industry feared. Almost three years later, it seemed like time to take another look.)  

(P&GJ) — With its approval of the Willow Project on the North Slope Alaska early this year, along with its continued of drilling permits on federal lands, the Biden administration has begun to show at least some desire to play ball where oil projects are involved, much to the chagrin of the anti-fossil fuel forces. 

True, the administration simultaneously undertook a review of the federal oil and gas program, but it must be remembered that the Willow Project – which has seen significant support from Alaska Native communities – is the largest oil and gas development ever proposed on federal lands. 

A few numbers from the U.S. Department of the Interior provide further evidence that while the current administration has certainly never boasted a pro-fossil fuel agenda, it has, in some cases, taken a more pragmatic approach toward the use of public land than many on both sides assumed: 

From February 2020 through July 2023, the administration approved 8,072 drilling permits on federal land, not considerably less than were approved by the former President Donald Trump, who approved 8,293 over the same period of his administration. 

This surprisingly happened even though, in 2021, Biden halted all lease sales on federal land,  pending a review of the leasing program by the Department of Interior (DOI). The DOI released its report in November 2021 and on the heels of several legal challenges, the lease sale program resumed in June 2022. 

In fact, based on data provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Biden administration has approved 80% of the drilling applications submitted since assuming office, compared to a 72% approval rate during the last year of the Trump presidency. 

Of course, as you know, the issuance of a permit is only a small part of the process required for drilling on federal lands and serves as no guarantee drilling will ever occur.  

For example, after bidding on land during Bureau of Land Management lease sales, generally held during each fiscal quarter, the company awarded the lease must pay $3 an acre for the first two years. That does not mean, however, a well will ever be drilled there. 

However, the amount of oil produced from these permits up until now has been  greater under Biden than during the previous administration. In fact, the Interior Department reports that it is at an all-time high level. 

Oil extractions from public lands, historically, has been growing consistently, having more than doubled from 177 million barrels to 445 million barrels between the fiscal years 2017 and 2022. 

This more measured White House approach toward not phasing out fossil fuels quite so fast was first on broad international display during Biden’s State of the Union address back in February. 

“We’re going to need oil for at least another decade … and beyond that,” Biden said. “We’re going to need it.” 

True, political rhetoric is often just that – political rhetoric. However, in this case the message was a far cry for that delivered to voters in Pennsylvania, where the then-former vice president said he would end fracking the day he entered office. 

On the other side of the ledger, based on inside sources, Reuter recently reported that the latest version of the administration’s five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing does not provide for any sales in 2024, and there will only three will occur during the last four years of the program – the lowest number in the program’s history. 

And, where pipelines are specifically concerned, the Biden administration is poised to give states and Native American groups greater authority to halt  projects that run through waters and could be detrimental to quality. This will involve a final rule from the EPA that eliminates a Trump era limit on the ability of states to do so. 

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