Approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on US public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president from 2001 to 2009, underscoring President Joe Biden's reluctance to more forcefully curb petroleum production in the face of industry and Republican resistance.
The Interior Department approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of the year, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. That includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since Biden took office on January 20.
New Mexico and Wyoming had the largest number of approvals. Montana, Colorado and Utah had hundreds each.
Biden campaigned last year on pledges to end new drilling on federal lands to rein in climate-changing emissions. His pick to oversee those lands, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, adamantly opposed drilling on federal lands while in Congress and co-sponsored the liberal Green New Deal.
But the steps taken by the administration to date on fossil fuels are more modest, including a temporary suspension on new oil and gas leases on federal lands that a judge blocked last month, blocked petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
Because vast fossil fuel reserves already are under lease, those actions did nothing to slow drilling on public lands and waters that account for about a quarter of US oil production.
Further complicating Biden's climate agenda is a recent rise in gasoline prices to $3 a gallon ($0.79 a liter) or more in many parts of the country. Any attempt to limit petroleum production could push gasoline prices even higher and risk souring economic recovery from the pandemic.
"He's walking the tightrope," said energy industry analyst Parker Fawcett with S&P Global Platts, noting that Keystone and ANWR came without huge political costs because they were aimed at future projects.
"Those easy wins don't necessarily have huge impacts on the market today," Fawcett said. "He is definitely backing off taking drastic action that would rock the market... What you're going to see is US oil production is going to continue to rebound."
Haaland has sought to tamp down Republican concern over potential constraints on the industry. She said during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing last month that there was no "plan right now for a permanent ban."
"Gas and oil production will continue well into the future and we believe that is the reality of our economy and the world we're living in," Haaland told Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. Interior officials declined further comment on permits issued under Biden.
Under former president Donald Trump, a staunch industry supporter, the Interior Department reduced the time it takes to review drilling applications from a year or more in some cases to just a few months.
Companies rushed to lock in drilling rights before the new administration. And in December, Trump's last full month in office, agency officials approved more than 800 permits - far more than any prior month during his presidency.
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