Interior secretary under fire at U.S. Senate hearing over oil and gas leases, public lands

By: - May 3, 2023 10:31 am

A field with oil wells in Musselshell County, Montana | Darrell Ehrlick/States Newsroom

Members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee used a Tuesday hearing on the Interior Department’s fiscal 2024 budget to voice their displeasure with the administration’s energy production policies to Secretary Deb Haaland.

The strongest criticism came from Republicans on the panel, though Chairman Joe Manchin III, a centrist West Virginia Democrat with ties to the state’s coal industry, also expressed disappointment with how the department has managed oil and gas production. Members of both parties raised concerns over the timeliness of federal approvals for energy projects.

Manchin, who sponsored the massive climate law Democrats passed last year but has since expressed his disapproval with how President Joe Biden has implemented it, said he was not eager to increase the administration’s request to add $2 billion for the Interior Department.

The department is still lagging on oil and gas initiatives required under the climate law and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, Manchin said.

“In my view, Interior’s failure to comply with laws Congress has passed is not a question of funding,” he said. “It’s a question of misplaced priorities, or perhaps a willingness to ignore certain requirements.”

Dissatisfaction over oil and gas leasing

The Energy Committee does not write appropriations bills, though a final spending package would likely need Manchin’s approval to clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for legislation. The administration’s request would be a 12% funding increase for the department.

The climate law, titled the Inflation Reduction Act or IRA, was the result of negotiations between Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and was intended to strike a balance between developing more oil and gas sources and transitioning to renewable energy sources, he said.

But the Biden administration has demonstrated an unwillingness to follow through on the provisions related to oil and gas, threatening the law’s clean-energy provisions, Manchin said Tuesday.

“Because the IRA ties wind energy to oil and gas, failing to take an all-of-the-above approach to energy security puts the administration at risk of taking a none-of-the-above approach,” Manchin told Haaland. “You’ll get nothing.”

The department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management still hasn’t finalized a five-year plan for offshore oil and gas lease sales and was behind on developing a plan for 2024 sales, Manchin complained. The five-year plan was due in June 2022, he said.

Haaland said the five-year offshore lease sales would be ready in September and blamed the delay on former President Donald Trump’s administration.

“The five-year plan is behind because the previous administration dropped the ball and stopped working on the plan,” she said.

The department was aware of the requirements under the climate law and would comply, she told Manchin.

Onshore lease sales

Ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming pressed Haaland to commit to holding quarterly lease sales for oil and gas development, as required by federal law.

Under an executive order President Joe Biden signed in his first week in office, Interior paused lease sales in areas managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management as officials determined how to evaluate the climate impacts of fossil fuel development on federal lands.

A federal judge in Louisiana ordered the department in June 2021 to resume lease sales, saying federal law did not give the department the power to opt out of the quarterly requirement.

“You haven’t been following the law,” Barrasso said Tuesday.

Haaland said plans were in the works to hold lease sales in June, September and December.

Barrasso also blasted the administration’s recent proposed rule to further conservation on federal lands. Federal lands are intended for multiple uses, including livestock grazing, mining and recreation. Adding conservation “would make non-use of lands a competing use,” Barrasso said.

Haaland said the rule would make conservation a valid use of the land on par with those extractive industries, but would not block any of them.

The proposal “would essentially put conservation on equal footing with our multi-use mandate,” she said. “It would not foreclose other uses of our public lands, such as mining or grazing or energy development.”

Barrasso objected to that description.

The proposed rule “is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate economic activities on federal lands in Wyoming and across the West,” he said. “I would strongly urge you to withdraw this disastrous and illegal proposal.”

Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto also said ranchers in her state worried the rule would limit grazing on federal lands and were “upset they were not consulted” before the proposed rule was published.

Haaland said the proposal was a draft and that the department is currently accepting public comments on it.

Permitting process

Manchin said the Interior Department was also six months behind on a requirement in the infrastructure law to speed the permitting process for critical mineral mining.

Federal permits for energy projects in general take too long, he said. Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Interior to improve the permitting process, but Interior agencies still blame lengthy reviews on a lack of funding for staffing, Manchin added.

Manchin reintroduced a bill Tuesday morning that would overhaul the federal environmental review process. The bill received a vote as an amendment to a spending bill last year, but with only seven Republican supporting it, the measure was not approved.

The permitting issue is not limited to fossil fuel projects.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from Haaland’s home state of New Mexico, also raised concerns over the length of time for federal approvals for renewable energy projects.

Heinrich noted the department had approved leases for offshore wind energy development.

“There are a lot of steps between leasing and permitting, and I’m concerned that the progress and the economics have changed in ways that put a lot of those projects potentially at risk,” he said.

The administration is prioritizing renewable energy development, Haaland said, and had a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.

Heinrich asked if the department was on track to reach that goal, given how long it can take to issue federal environmental permits for large energy projects.

“We believe we are,” Haaland responded.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.