The Interior Department's Promising but Unfinished Business

Robert Glicksman

Feb. 2, 2022

During the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior undermined its statutory obligations to protect lands and natural resources managed by the federal government. It also accelerated the extraction of fossil fuels from federal lands and constructed barriers to a shift to renewable energy, hindering efforts to abate climate disruption.

On March 15, 2021, the Senate confirmed Deb Haaland as new secretary of the department, which houses the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — three agencies that together are responsible for managing millions of acres of some of the nation's most precious terrain.

Before Haaland's confirmation, the Center for Progressive Reform identified five priorities for the department. Here is an update on progress so far.

  1. Restore curbs on methane waste. In his first week in office, President Biden issued an executive order that enunciated a policy of curbing methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Last fall, the department issued a notice that it intends to update BLM regulations governing the waste of natural gas from onshore federal oil and gas leases through venting, flaring, and leaks. The notice does not, however, provide a deadline for this proposed rule. The department must quickly propose and adopt a rule that fixes the legal deficiencies in previous, Obama-era regulations identified by the Wyoming district court so that operations occurring under federal oil and gas leases do not continue to spew methane into the air.

  2. Restore Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protections. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska — the country's largest national wildlife refuge — is home to an array of iconic wildlife species. For decades, it was off-limits to oil and gas exploration and leasing. In 2017, however, Congress authorized the department to issue leases in the refuge's coastal plain. In its waning days, the Trump administration frantically sold off oil and gas leases in the refuge.

    During his first week in office, Biden ordered the Secretary to review the program and analyze its environmental impacts, and CPR called on Haaland to restore protections and explore rescinding oil and gas leases within the refuge. In June 2021, Haaland responded, suspending oil leases, halting all department activities related to leasing within the refuge pending completion of the environmental analysis, and stopping leasing activities with the potential to cause irreparable damage to natural resources within the refuge. The agency should complete its review and take all necessary steps to protect the integrity of the rich biodiversity found there.

  3. Restart climate adaptation planning. As Biden prepared to take office last year, CPR called for the new administration to craft climate adaptation plans on federal lands to stem the adverse effects of climate change on wild and scenic places, endangered species, and other public natural resources from the ravages of climate-related threats such as sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, and habitat alteration. In an early executive order, the president ordered the head of each agency to submit a plan describing steps to bolster adaptation and increase resilience to climate change.

    Last year, the department issued its 2021 Climate Action Plan, which enunciates a policy of effectively and efficiently confronting and adapting to climate-related challenges and commits to using the best available science to adapt to climate change impacts. The department also stated its intention to integrate sustainable, equitable, and ecosystem-based adaptation practices into its policies and programs, coordinate with affected stakeholders in pursuing those adaptation strategies, and practice adaptive management to fine-tune best management practices. In response, Haaland established a Climate Task Force to increase the resilience and adaptive capacity of lands managed by the department.

    Since then, the department has fulfilled some aspects of its Climate Action Plan. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey created national and regional centers to engage in the research needed to meet the department's adaptation commitments. And the National Park Service has conducted or accumulated numerous studies to protect park resources and facilitate adaptation to climate change, and it is implementing adaptation strategies to protect cultural resources and coastal areas threatened by sea-level rise. The extent to which the agency continues to build effective tools and strategies for adaptation into National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses, resource management plans, and other specific actions will determine its success in fostering climate adaptation.

  4. Restrict leases that permit offshore drilling for oil and gas in all coastal states. During the Trump administration, the department's leasing free-for-all sought to open almost all U.S. coastal areas to oil and gas leasing, posing enormous threats of contamination to vulnerable marine resources from oil spills.

    After the 2020 election, CPR called for restrictions on fossil fuel leases in all coastal areas. In early executive orders, Biden restored a previous withdrawal from oil and gas drilling of offshore areas in Arctic waters and the Bering Sea and ordered the Secretary, to the extent consistent with applicable law, to pause new oil and natural gas leases in offshore waters pending further review.

    Haaland quickly issued an order suspending issuance of authorizations for offshore fossil fuel extraction activities, including new leases, lease extensions, and permits to drill. A year after the election, the department also issued a detailed report that recommended updating those practices to (1) provide a fair return to the American public and states from federal management of public lands and waters, (2) design more responsible leasing and development processes, and (3) create a more transparent, inclusive, and just approach to leasing and permitting.

    The report noted that utility-scale renewable energy production has emerged as a viable source of energy generation in offshore waters, recommended revisions in royalty rates for fossil fuel development, urged adoption of "fitness to operate" standards for lessees, and suggested leasing smaller offshore areas subject to more stringent environmental protection conditions.

    Not all Biden administration actions have been consistent with the president’s stated commitment to taking aggressive action to mitigate climate change and accelerate a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Although the administration has not held a single coal lease sale, it has actually issued onshore oil and gas leases at a faster pace than its predecessor did. Those leasing actions are due at least in part to a federal district court opinion enjoining the Interior Secretary from “paus[ing]” new oil and gas leases on public lands pending a comprehensive review of permitting and leasing practices, including potential climate impacts. It remains to be seen how vigorous and creative the administration will be in overcoming such barriers to its climate agenda.

  5. Require offsets for environmental harms on public lands. In a recent blog post, I urged the department to require those causing damage to federal lands and resources through grazing, mining, and other activities to offset damage with environmental restoration projects and to curtail uses of federal lands that generate carbon pollution.

    Biden's executive order on "Tackling the Climate Crisis" urged reclamation of abandoned mines and restoration of natural assets, although it did not assign responsibility to private entities. In July 2021, the BLM rescinded an instructional memorandum issued by the Trump administration that prohibited department officials from requiring compensatory mitigation of harms caused by exploitation of natural resources on public, eliminating that obstacle to the allocation of restoration duties to responsible private entities. Although the department has called for the payment of higher royalties for onshore oil and gas leasing and increasing bond payments by energy companies, it has not halted extraction of fossil fuels from public lands.

    The department has, under Haaland's leadership, taken numerous positive steps, such as the restoration of protections for migratory birds and proposed rules (here and here) that would revoke Endangered Species Act regulations issued during the Trump administration. If they are not repealed, those rules would eviscerate the act's listing and critical habitat protections. The agency has yet to take urgently needed steps, however, to relist gray wolves as an endangered species to halt the grotesque and inhumane slaughter of the animals that is occurring due to hunting policies approved by Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in the wake of an earlier decision to delist the wolves.

Haaland has made an excellent start at pursuing some most important initiatives critical to the protection of the nation's priceless public natural resource heritage. The devastation wreaked by the Trump administration was so extensive and pervasive, however, that it will take vigilance and a sustained commitment on the Secretary's part to mitigate the damage.

Top image by the Office of Rep. Deb Haaland.

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