Shortly after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, his administration paused the federal oil and gas leasing program, meaning that no new leases would be auctioned off for an undetermined period of time. The move was more symbolic than substantial: Halting leasing would do little to slow oil and gas production or even drilling because oil and gas companies already had a big stockpile of undrilled land under lease.
That didn’t stop the oil and gas industry—and their favorite politicians—from blowing a gasket, at least in a performative sort of way. A leasing “ban” would stem production, kill jobs, and cause gas prices to skyrocket, they claimed. In late January, the Land Desk had this to say about the claims:
So when Ryan Flynn, President of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, calls the pause “a blockade around New Mexico’s economy” and claims that “unemployment will rise, state revenue will fall, and our economy will come to a halt,” he is—to put it mildly—shoveling up a bunch of alternative facts. Similarly, when environmentalists hail the action as having the potential to “keep up to 450 billion tons of climate pollutants in the ground,” they are engaged in some serious wishful—perhaps even delusional—thinking.
Perhaps Flynn is worried that a Biden-BLM will quit handing out drilling permits like candy at a parade. Don’t count on it.
Nevertheless, we had to admit: Biden’s move to suspend the century-old Mineral Leasing Act seemed to indicate that he wasn’t afraid to incur the industry’s wrath, which was a step up from most of his predecessors.
Nearly six months have passed since the pause began and, despite a federal judge ordering the administration to resume the program, no federal lease auctions have taken place. Just as we predicted, it hasn’t made a lick of a difference on the ground.
As the global economy pulls out of its COVID-19 slump, demand for oil has climbed, pulling up prices, as well. That has spurred more drilling, which has led to an increase in oil production, particularly from wells in New Mexico. As a result, New Mexico has seen a record-breaking surge of oil and gas related revenue flowing into its coffers. So much for Ryan Flynn’s “economic blockade.”
As for Biden’s willingness to stand up to the industry in a meaningful way? Well, we were wrong about that part. In fact, the Biden Bureau of Land Management has been quite generous with the industry where it counts, issuing drilling permits at a pace not seen since the energy-frenzy of the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney years. Biden’s approval-pace even exceeds that under Trump, in spite of that administration’s frenzied rush to issue permits during the first weeks of January prior to Biden taking office.
From what we’ve seen so far this year, it appears that Democrats are only slightly more willing to hold the industry to account than their GOP counterparts. Biden still hasn’t made the results of the leasing program review public, but Haaland’s testimony to Congress indicated that any reforms wouldn’t go as far as the environmental community had hoped, possibly because Biden doesn’t want to alienate key Democratic senators who are in the oil industry’s pocket.
And even as Biden seems to be backing off on his pledge to take bold moves on the climate, we learn that the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency allowed the inclusion of PFAS—carcinogenic “forever chemicals” that resist breaking down in the environment—in the soup that is shot into wells during hydraulic fracturing.
Biden’s not through, yet, and there is still time for his administration and Congress to pass meaningful reforms and regulations. Yet it has become increasingly clear that the sea change in Washington that conservationists had hoped for is not going to materialize any time soon.
75: The number of drilling rigs operating in New Mexico currently, a 50 percent increase from a year ago, when the count was at 49. (Source: Baker Hughes)
10, 10, and 12: The number of rigs operating in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, respectively. A year ago, the count for those states was 1, 0, and 5.
1,180: The number of drilling permits issued by the Biden Administration for federal lands and minerals in New Mexico as of July 1, 2021. (Source: Bureau of Land Management Automated Fluid Minerals Support System)
92: The number of those permits issued by the Farmington Field Office for drilling in the San Juan Basin, where activity had been at a virtual standstill since 2016.
612; 128: Drilling permits issued by the Biden Administration for Wyoming and Utah, respectively.
35.8 million barrels: Production of crude oil from New Mexico in March 2021, an all-time record for the state. New Mexico thus displaced North Dakota as the nation’s second largest oil producer after Texas. (Source: Energy Information Administration)
1.5 billion cubic feet: Amount of methane and other associated gases that were flared or vented from New Mexico oil and gas wells during March 2021. (Source: New Mexico Oil Conservation Division)
$1.25 billion: Revenue generated by New Mexico state lands in fiscal year 2021, shattering the all-time record. While $87 million of that came from new renewable energy leases, the bulk of it ($1.2 billion) was generated from oil and gas royalties and leases on state land. (Source: New Mexico State Land Office)
$333,000: Amount six Democratic senators received over the past decade from lobbyists, political action committees, and lobbying firms affiliated with Exxon Mobil. Among the six were: Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, both from Arizona, and Sen. Jon Tester, from Montana. (Source: Huffpost.com)
$99,783: Amount received by Sen. Jon Tester from Exxon Mobil.
1,200: Number of wells in which per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were injected as part of the hydraulic fracturing soup since the EPA’s approval of the practice in 2011. (Source: Physicians for Social Responsibility)
8 billion: Gallons of water that a single cup of PFAS could contaminate to hazardous levels according to Michigan’s maximum level of PFAS (eight parts per trillion). PFAS—which were once used in nonstick cookware and other items—have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, and ulcerative colitis.
120 pounds: Estimated maximum amount of PFAS used by EOG Resources while hydraulically fracturing a single well in Lea County, New Mexico, in 2015.