The state of the land: Biden’s mixed conservation record

The president has riled up just about everyone with his public-land policies. Maybe that’s a good thing.


This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to give his second State of the Union address to Congress next week, which I’m sure means that Republicans, with their narrow majority in the House, are already rehearsing their performances for the cameras. You’ll remember, of course, that last year’s speech produced at least one meme-worthy moment that involved Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert shouting and demanding petulantly that Biden “build that wall.” I’m predicting this year they’ll dress up as “sexy” M&Ms and scream, “Guns, God and Gas Stoves!”

Theatrics aside, the State of the Union is traditionally a time to assess the current administration’s progress on various issues, including what Biden has and hasn’t done on public lands and climate issues. The report card ranges widely, from the Center for Western Priority’s grade, which amounts to what might be a B-minus, to George Wuerthner, who gave Interior Secretary Deb Haaland a D-minus accompanied by a stern scolding. Some of the judgments are deserved, others not so much.

The latter includes the Center for Biological Diversity’s take, which has gotten the most play lately, spawning this headline from Yahoo! News: Biden granted more oil and gas drilling permits than Trump in his first 2 years in office.

Yikes! How is that possible? 

After all, Trump and his Interior secretaries had that thing they called “Energy Dominance,” which was code for an inappropriate attachment to fossil fuels and the corporations that extract them. So if Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued more drilling permits than Trump and his Interior secretaries, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, folks are going to take notice. “Two years of runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership by President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland,” the Center’s Taylor McKinnon said in a statement. “Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires phasing out fossil fuel extraction, but instead we’re still racing in the opposite direction.”

Whether the current administration has done enough to tackle climate change is certainly up for debate, but using Trump’s first years in office as a benchmark is a bit disingenuous. Those two years happened to be one of the slowest periods for drilling in the last couple decades, with or without energy dominance, because the price of oil was so crappy that producers were shutting down existing wells. Forget drilling new ones.

When the price of oil started climbing again, they dusted off their drill rigs and started applying for permits. And when it became clear that Trump might lose the election, they went on a permit application frenzy as they tried to squeeze in under the wire. During Trump’s last two years in office, his administration issued nearly 9,800 permits — or about 50% more than Biden issued during his first two years — many of them sent out the door after the November election.

Number of drilling permits BLM field offices approved during the first two years of the Trump administration.  

Number of drilling permits approved during the Biden administration’s first two years.

Number of drilling permits the Trump administration approved during its last two years in office.

Number of drilling permits the George W. Bush administration approved over a two-year period (fiscal years 2006 and 2007).

Some of that frenzy carried over into Biden’s administration, and during its first months it continued to approve drilling at a fast clip. But then, despite skyrocketing oil prices and intense political pressure to remove the regulatory hindrances to developing public lands, the pace of permitting actually slowed down significantly. Over the last year, Biden has issued about 239 permits per month compared to Trump’s 331 monthly average over his entire term.

I’m not trying to defend Biden’s record here, but rather pointing out the flaws in playing the numbers game, especially since drilling permits are handed out by bureaucrats in field offices far removed from Oval Office machinations. It would be far more productive to analyze Biden’s policies or scrutinize decisions on larger projects in which upper-level officials might play a role.

President Biden’s Bureau of Land Management is working to block drilling around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

So far, that’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Biden hasn’t halted oil and gas development on public lands by any means, and his agencies have made some questionable moves, such as approving a right of way across Forest Service land for an oil train or defending contested Trump-era oil and gas leases.

But he has also stood up to the oil and gas industry, in some cases even more forcefully than Obama. In addition to the permitting slowdown, Biden’s BLM has leased out fewer acres than either Obama or Trump, is working to block drilling around Chaco Culture National Historical Park and along Colorado’s Thompson Divide, restored the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, hiked royalty and bonding rates, limited non-competitive leasing and is in the process of restoring and strengthening methane emissions rules rescinded by Trump.

Yet the move that could make or break Biden’s climate legacy is still pending: The Interior Department’s decision on ConocoPhillips’ massive proposed Willow drilling project in Alaska is expected any day now. It’s a touchy one politically. Environmentalists say the project would unleash a “carbon bomb” from the Alaska tundra. But Rep. Mary Sattler Peltola, D-Alaska, joins her Republican colleagues in strongly favoring the project.

Still, regardless of what happens with Willow, you’ve got to admit that in non-hydrocarbon related matters, “Dark Brandon” is blazing a green path across Alaska.

Last week, the administration reinstated roadless protections for 9 million acres in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the latest victory for forests in a long-running saga that began when the Clinton administrations 2001 Roadless Rule prohibited road construction, logging and other development on 58 million acres of national forest lands.

The Bush administration tried to kill it, some states sued to stop it, others — including Alaska — attempted to get an exemption. But court after court upheld the rule. Trump used his industry-loving regulation-gutting ax to repeal protections for the Tongass, much to the horror of environmentalists and the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples and some 400 species of wildlife that call the forest home.

Bidens move is one of a long string of reversals of Trumps regulatory rollbacks. “GO JOE! Thank you so much for your support, stewardship, and care for this precious and wonderful planet earth! We honor your path,” said Mike and Sally Trotter, who own Baranof Wilderness Lodge, as quoted in a statement by the Center for Biological Diversity, which can dish out praise as well as criticism.

That was followed up by the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto of the controversial proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. The EPA nixed the open-pit copper and gold mine, using the Clean Water Act to prohibit waste disposal in a 309-square-mile area to protect a huge sockeye salmon fishery. A mine can’t mine if it can’t dispose of its waste, so if the ruling stands the test of time — and future administrations — it is essentially the death knell for the project.

The Biden administration may take a conflicting approach to oil and gas, but it seems far more at peace with its gung-ho support of solar and wind development on public lands. The Interior Department has given the go-ahead to major solar projects on federal land in Nevada, California and Arizona; it held the West Coast’s first-ever offshore wind lease sale; and it is in the process of “seeking to identify new or expanded areas to prioritize solar development” across several Western states. It says it is currently processing 65 utility-scale clean energy projects on public lands.

Still, the administration has tempered its enthusiasm — and some of the impacts — with other moves. It has indicated it will establish the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada, essentially killing a proposed wind power facility and any potential for solar development. And in its draft environmental impact statement for the gargantuan Lava Ridge Wind Farm proposed for southern Idaho, the BLM prefers a development alternative that would avoid impacts to the Minidoka National Historic Site.

We have another suggestion: Put those solar panels on big-box stores, over parking lots and on irrigation canals.

Conservationists have been less than pleased with the administration’s approach toward grazing. The BLM has kept grazing fees at the rock-bottom minimum, which amounts to a hefty subsidy for public-lands ranchers. Meanwhile, in its plan to protect 30% of public land by 2030, the administration is classifying ranches as conservation land. That has stoked environmentalists’ pessimism about new grazing rules, set to be released in coming weeks or months.

When it comes to other major rulemaking, the administration’s slow pace is frustrating to a lot of conservationists, who feel — correctly, in my opinion — that we don’t have time to wait. Take the methane rule: A new report commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund found that 162 billion cubic feet of methane — i.e. natural gas — was lost due to venting, flaring and leaks from natural gas operations on federal and tribal lands in 2019. That added up to nearly $64 million in lost royalties for federal, state and tribal governments — not to mention all that added pollution. But making rules takes a long time, especially if you hope to make them in a way that will survive the whims of future administrations.

Still, there are little things an agency can do more quickly that can make a difference. In November, for example, the BLM quietly discontinued the use of categorical exclusions for piñon-juniper management via a “permanent instruction memorandum.” That means the agency’s field offices must do an environmental analysis prior to chaining or hydro-mowing or otherwise pulverizing the piñon and juniper forests that cover so much of the West — something often done for the sake of livestock grazing.

Hold the Line: Stories from HCN and elsewhere that are worth your time

High Country News’ Caroline Tracey continues her excellent water reporting with an interesting piece about Mormon environmentalists pushing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to leverage their power and resources to help save the Great Salt Lake from disappearing into the dust. But before you read that, check out Tracey’s story on how saline lakes all over the West are shrinking, thereby threatening biodiversity and harming air quality, and about how researchers are trying to reverse the trend. | High Country News

“We’re all headed to a very dark place.” So said one Western water manager in an email obtained by the Associated Press as a deadline for making deep cuts to water consumption from the Colorado River approached last year. The deadline passed, the cuts were never realized, and the feds set a new deadline of Jan. 31. This time the states came up with two different plans, one from California and one from everyone else. Federal water managers told the AP that this time they will impose mandatory cuts if the states can’t come up with their own satisfactory plans. | Associated Press 

It’s pretty much the last thing we “quiet” recreationists wanted to hear, but there it is: A new study has found that hikers create a “landscape of fear” that disturbs and stresses wildlife just as much as apex predators do. The Hill has a rundown of the study’s findings. | The Hill

We want to hear from you!

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 


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