In a Thursday hearing that came less than a week after the U.S. Interior Department released a report that called for fiscal updates to the federal oil and gas leasing programs but offered little to lessen the industry’s climate impacts, Democrats said the administration left a critical gap that would hamper efforts to meet Biden’s climate commitments.
U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat who chairs the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said the proposals, which include raising rates for royalties and bonding, were welcome but insufficient.
“These changes are long overdue,” Lowenthal said. “But a glaring omission of the report was any discussion on the emissions that result from oil and gas drilling on public lands. In my view, this was a missed opportunity, and it’s a critical issue that we must address.”
Lowenthal said the report’s recommendations were “minor reforms” that would not put the U.S. on a path to meeting its climate pledges.
He and full committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the administration could use its existing authority to reduce emissions more significantly from federal lands.
Environmental activists have asked Biden to permanently ban oil and gas leasing on federal lands, saying it was a necessary step to reach the administration’s lofty climate goals.
“I cannot help but feel misled, disheartened and disappointed when I witness actions such as the Department of Interior taking steps to lease more public lands to oil and gas,” Jade Begay, the climate justice campaign director with the Native American advocacy group NDN Collective and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, testified at the hearing.
The Biden administration paused new leases on federal lands while its review was ongoing, but a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the government to restart the program in June.
The panel’s Republicans largely objected to Democratic calls for reducing energy production on federal lands.
Giving up domestic production would lead to increased development from members of OPEC, Russia and other countries with less stringent environmental standards, they said.
Republicans warn against ‘unilateral’ action
Declines in U.S. fossil fuel production would likely be replaced in the global market by OPEC oil, Russian natural gas and coal from other countries, said Nick Loris, the vice president of public policy with the Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions, a group that advocates for market climate strategies.
“I continue to be confused by why some members of this panel that advocate—or suggest they’re advocating—for a clean energy future but actually push policies that result in higher global emissions,” U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said.
Republicans downplayed the climate impact that reducing oil and gas production on federal lands could have, saying other global factors were more important.
“No matter how much they demonize domestic oil and gas production, America is not the problem,” the panel’s ranking Republican, Pete Stauber of Minnesota, said of Democrats’ calls for reduced development on federal lands.
“We can’t have that big of an impact just by changing what we do here at home,” U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, of Arkansas, the ranking Republican on the full committee, said.
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany asked Begay what commitments China made at last month’s United Nations Climate Conference to reduce oil and gas development, implying that any moves by the U.S. to reduce emissions would not be matched by the world’s second-largest economy.
“America unilaterally disarming in regard to energy independence will lead to our decline,” he said later.
But Democrats said U.S. leadership was important to international action.
“To lead in the world, we need to get our own house in order,” Grijalva said. “This includes managing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our public lands and waters.”
Eyes on New Mexico
Much of the debate focused on New Mexico, the second-largest producer of crude oil behind Texas.
State Sen. Carrie Hamblen, a Democrat who also leads the environmental business group Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, testified to the congressional committee that New Mexico was overly reliant on fossil fuel receipts.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, a longtime New Mexico conservationist and executive director of the conservation nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, called the state’s dependence on oil and gas revenue a “rollercoaster” because of the volatile nature of the market.
Oil and gas tax revenue provides major funding for education, conservation and hospital programs in the state, Stauber noted. An industry analysis in February estimated the industry accounted for one-third of all state revenues last fiscal year, including more than $1.3 billion for public education and colleges.
Hamblen confirmed Stauber’s comment on the industry’s contributions to the state budget, but called for “a serious conversation about economic diversity.” The state has started to add revenue streams, including through the newly legalized sale of marijuana, she said.
She added that recreational use of public lands would be another economic benefit and called for increased renewable energy production on public lands.
“There’s no denying that the oil and gas industry has supported many things,” Hamblen said. “What we need to do is continue that momentum of creating different revenue streams, and we’re doing it in New Mexico, we’re starting that.”