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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — In the closing months of the Trump administration, energy companies stockpiled enough drilling permits for western public lands to keep pumping oil for years and undercut President-elect Joe Biden’s plans to curb new drilling because of climate change, according to public records and industry analysts. An Associated Press analysis of government data shows the permit stockpiling has centered on oil-rich federal lands in New Mexico and Wyoming. It accelerated during the fall as Biden was cementing his lead over President Donald Trump and peaked in December, aided by speedier permitting approvals since Trump took office.
The goal for companies is to lock in drilling rights on oil and gas leases on vast public lands where they make royalty payments on any resources extracted. Biden wants to end new drilling on those same lands as part of his overhaul of how Americans get energy, with the goal of making the nation carbon neutral by 2050. Companies submitted more than 3,000 drilling permit applications in a three-month period that included the election, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Officials approved almost 1,400 drilling applications during that time amidst the pandemic. That’s the highest number of approvals during Trump’s four-year term, according to AP’s analysis.
Invitation to Drill
Making it easier to drill was a centerpiece of Trump’s effort to boost American energy production in part by enticing companies onto lands and offshore areas run by the U.S. departments of Interior and Agriculture. Under Trump, crude production from federal and tribal lands and waters increased sharply, topping a billion barrels in 2019. That was up by almost a third from the last year of the Obama administration. But this year the coronavirus pandemic and crashing oil prices caused many companies to curtail their activity. With markets still in flux and oil producers slashing budgets, major companies nevertheless have been acquiring enough permits to keep pumping through Biden’s upcoming term. The government approved about 500 new drilling permits in September, more than double the same month in 2019.
Years Worth of Permits
To undo the late-term awarding of so many permits, a former senior Interior Department official said the Biden administration could be forced to pay millions of dollars to companies to get them to relinquish drilling rights. Such a scenario played out in pristine areas of Montana where officials spent decades trying to buy out companies with drilling leases near Glacier National Park.
Biden is nominating New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary. And Haaland, who co-sponsored the Green New Deal by liberal Democrats, has said she opposes fracking and drilling on public land.
“I definitely wouldn’t expect the New Mexican state government to support radical moves,” Abramov said. “They would push Biden toward a more gradual approach” to the oil and gas industry.