[PBS NewsHour]

Biden’s complex relationship with oil and gas, despite campaign promises

Posted on:

< < Back to

WASHINGTON (NewsHour) — In 2020, Joe Biden promised to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels. But the Biden administration has a complicated relationship with the oil and gas industry.

It has moved forward on plans to drill federally owned lands, auctioned off 73 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, and approved the controversial Willow project in Alaska.

POLITICO energy reporter Ben Lefebvre joins NewsHour’s John Yang to discuss.

Pipeline awaits installation in a natural gas project.
Pipeline awaits installation in a natural gas project. [Jesse Wright | WVPB]

Read the Full Transcript

  • John Yang:

    For the second time in the last three weeks, the Biden administration has moved forward on plans to drill for oil in federally owned lands. This week, it auctioned off a massive stretch of the Gulf of Mexico 73 million acres, roughly the size of Arizona.

    Earlier, the administration approved the controversial Willow project in Alaska, an $8 billion oil drilling venture. As a candidate, Biden promised to move the United States away from fossil fuels.

    Ben Lefebvre covers the energy industry for politico. Ben, as a candidate in 2020, he said, Mr. Biden said no more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period. So what happened? What’s going on?

  • Ben Lefebvre, POLITICO:

    What happened was we always see candidates run for office promising one thing and most likely intending to do that thing once they get into office. But then as soon as they step foot inside the Oval Office, reality steps in and changes those plans.

    So, with this latest oil sale lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, Biden pretty much had to follow the law. These lease sales are run, you know, twice a year. They got away with not having any last year, but I think their time ran out legally and they had to do it this time around.

  • John Yang:

    I also read somewhere that they need the revenue from this for budget reasons.

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    Yes, drilling for oil in pretty much anywhere on public land, the government gets a cut of the proceeds. I think local governments generally get half of the proceeds, and then the rest kind of goes to conservation efforts.

    So, it’s a big chunk of change. I mean, this last lease sale on Wednesday resulted in 200, and I think it was $64 million. That was the highest amount that the government’s gotten for one of these Gulf lease sales since 2014, I think.

  • John Yang:

    What has this done to his relationship with environmentalists?

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    It’s not made it easy. I mean, especially as you mentioned, after Willow, environmentalists were already angry at the administration. This time around, the Biden administration didn’t even put out, really, a press release with the results of this. I kind of think it shows how sensitive they are to being seen as kind of facilitating oil development.

    They had to do this to basically keep the legal promises to the oil industry. And I think, as we’ve seen with this and Willow, when the administration tries to hew to the middle of the road, it ends up getting hit by a lot of political cars.

  • John Yang:

    What’s the Biden administration’s relationship, like with the oil industry?

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    It’s gotten better. I mean, when they first came into office, they were pretty much at each other’s throats. Over the past two years, especially with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helping to kind of scramble trade flows and commodity markets, the industry and the administration have been talking more often. I don’t think they’re maybe in love with each other by any means, but there seems to be at least a grudging respect and a kind of thawing of relationships.

  • John Yang:

    Are there environmental concerns? Are there worries about the North Slope of Alaska where the willow project is and the Gulf of Mexico?

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    Yes, there’s environmental concerns for both Alaska. I mean, Alaska — I mean, The North Slope is, to a certain extent, in the middle of nowhere. The fear is that if you have any big catastrophe out there’s not a lot of emergency management, you know, emergency response, you know, facilities nearby. It’s not like the local fire station can rush out there.

    In the Gulf of Mexico, as you mentioned, we obviously saw the Deepwater Horizon accident. The Gulf of Mexico is closer to places that can get emergency response teams out there, but it’s still, you know, it’s fairly far away. And if you have a big accident that’s a major ecosystem that’s in danger.

  • John Yang:

    What has the administration done or doing to fulfill the promise of weaning the United States off fossil fuels or try to wean it off?

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    It’s interesting after this latest announcement about the Gulf of Mexico lease sale, they also announced some major conservation efforts where they were going to allow nonprofits to basically lease federal land to kind of keep it in a natural state.

    Before this, remember last year we had the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law where those ceded a lot of money to clean energy, renewable energy innovations and infrastructure.

    So the administration will say, well, look, we have to do some of this fossil fuel stuff basically to stay within the law and to make sure that fuel prices don’t rise too high for the average family. But it’s we’re doing things that in the next five to ten years, you are going to see a major rebalancing of U. S. Energy supply.

  • John Yang:

    Ben Lefebvre from POLITICO. Thank you very much.

  • Ben Lefebvre:

    Thank you.