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Fossil Fuels and Public Lands: The Benefits of a Biden Lease Moratorium

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When President Trump took office in 2017, the Department of the Interior quickly moved to lease nearly all offshore lands for oil and gas development. The map was astounding; for decades, there had been relatively limited drilling in offshore waters, and many state officials and advocates were shocked to see a proposal for such extensive leasing of offshore federal lands. Indeed, notoriously conservative Rick Scott of Florida entered into a handshake deal with former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to avoid drilling near the state. Trump's Interior Department also attempted to lease vast swaths of onshore public lands for fossil fuel development.

President Biden has predictably followed a different approach, announcing his intent to place a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal onshore and offshore lands. This is a sensible solution.

The United States is already working to transition to more low-carbon energy production, and oil and gas prices remain low — largely because of large amounts of U.S. oil and gas production from private lands. Indeed, fewer new wells are being drilled, even on private lands, because the prices producers can command on the market don't justify drilling and fracking large numbers of new wells. A non-trivial number of oil and gas companies have declared bankruptcy due to the low prices.

During Trump's efforts to lease millions of new acres of public lands, fossil fuel companies leased far fewer acres than he had hoped for, particularly given low pandemic-era prices. Even pre-pandemic, the largest auction of public oil and gas leases ever — conducted during the Trump administration — drew bids on just 1 percent of the blocks up for lease. Despite low leasing rates, the sheer magnitude of Trump's efforts — particularly in Wyoming and New Mexico — did lock up large acreages of federal lands for potential future drilling. A moratorium will at least pause that lock-in trend.

The moratorium also makes sense as the Department of the Interior will likely work to roll back Trump's reversal of the Obama-era methane rule for federal lands. That rule required drillers to reduce the amount of methane released from oil and gas wells. Obama's methane rule received bipartisan support because it increased the amount of natural gas produced from wells on public lands by reducing the amount of the gas released into the air, thus lowering waste while limiting climate-changing methane emissions. Through an executive order, Biden has already moved to begin the process of reinstating methane emissions limits for wells drilled and fractured on both private and public lands.

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