Biden pledged to stop drilling on public lands. What happened?

The president reversed a key part of his agenda that was intended to combat the climate crisis.


Oil field in the Bureau of Land Management Bakersfield, California Field Office.
Erin Schmitt / Bureau of Land Management

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In the autumn of 2020, public lands became an important battleground for both the climate crisis and the White House, as then-President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden sparred on the campaign trail. Trump, who promised “energy dominance,” doubled down on climate change denial, calling the crisis a “make-believe problem,” a “big scam” and a “Chinese hoax.” In response, Biden pledged action, saying: “There’s no more consequential challenge that we must meet in the next decade than the onrushing climate crisis. … Left unchecked, it is literally an existential threat to the planet and our very survival.” To help achieve that goal, Biden promised to end new oil, gas and coal leases on public land. (“Energy dominance or climate action: Trump, Biden and the fate of public lands,” October 2020).

On April 15, in the face of surging gas prices, President Joe Biden lifted his moratorium on new oil and gas leases for drilling on public lands, reneging on a key aspect of his climate agenda. At the same time, he announced that his administration will reform royalty rates, increase tribal consultation, improve processes for public input and ensure science-based decision making. Some climate advocates, however, denounced the move. “It’s time for climate leadership and to stop leasing our public lands for oil and gas development,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community.  “We need heroes to break through the political and economic inertia that has us on a collision course to inhabitability.”

Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the pause President Biden put on oil and gas drilling was for new leases on public land, not all oil and gas drilling.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an associate editor for High Country News. She oversees coverage of the Southwest, Great Basin and the Borderlands from her home in Durango, Colorado. We welcome reader letters. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

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