Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

President Biden’s announcement that he’s expanding oil drilling on public lands and ancestral tribal lands by putting 144,000 acres of lands up for lease in nine states has enraged climate activists. They see his actual policies versus his campaign promises to phase out oil and gas (O&G) production as climate denial. 

Thousands of organizations and communities from across the U.S. have called on Biden to end new investments in fossil fuel projects. They advocate investing in solar production in urban settings like rooftops and parking lot awnings to transition to clean power sources and get sustainable energy production online faster.

“While the Biden administration talks a good talk on climate action, the reality is, they’re in bed with the O&G industry,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Rest assured, with the climate crisis raging, we can and will fight back. We can’t afford not to.”

New Mexico, the second-largest oil producer in the US, has become known as an energy sacrifice zone, With over 40,000 oil and gas wells dotting the landscape around the sacred Greater Chaco region of northwestern New Mexico, the vast majority of available lands are already leased for extraction. Oil and gas extraction is so extensive in southeastern New Mexico’s Permian Basin that the region has been described as a climate bomb. Avoiding catastrophic global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, requires ending new investments in fossil fuels,

According to federal data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Biden administration approved more drilling permits in 2021 than President Trump did in the first year of his presidency.  “It’s as if they’re ignoring the horror of firestorms, floods and mega-droughts, and accepting climate catastrophes as business as usual,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity

The communities most at risk from new fossil-fuel extraction are primarily Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. “Our day-to-day life and health are directly affected by these sales and the subsequent production that comes along with them,” said Kayley Shoup of Citizens Caring for the Future

“The West is drying up and going up in flames,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “We need heroes to break through the political and economic inertia that has us on a collision course to uninhabitability.”

The U.S. Interior Department said the land offered for lease auction will be subject to Tribal consultation and community input and was 80% less than the 733,000 acres nominated. New leases take an average of more than 4 years for production to begin. Justifying new leasing by saying it will lower gas prices or help ramp up exports of natural gas in response to the invasion of Ukraine doesn’t float.

The White House says it had no choice but to continue drilling on public lands after a federal judge in Louisiana struck down Biden’s executive order in June 2021 temporarily suspending such drilling. Attempting to deflect criticism, the Biden administration explained it is increasing the royalties that companies must pay for this drilling from 12.5 percent to 18.75 percent in a first-of-its-kind increase in more than a century. O&G industry representatives say the higher royalty rates would deter drilling, yet Accountable.US recently reported that Shell, Chevron, BP and Exxon made more than $75.5 billion in profits in 2021, some of their highest profits in the past decade.

 “What’s legal isn’t always ethical and too many leaders, the world-over, are demonstrating this with their utter disregard for their communities and the climate. I’m embarrassed for these so-called leaders,” said Sha Merirei Ongelungel, executive director of Pasifika Uprising.