Outgoing Interior chief says Arctic oil leases will survive Biden

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy on 1/20/2021
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

(Bloomberg) --Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he expects both political and legal constraints to get in the way of President-elect Joe Biden’s pledges to block new oil and gas permitting on federal land.

“You can write a lot of executive orders, but an executive order doesn’t get you past go,” Bernhardt said in an interview with Bloomberg News on his last full day leading the Interior Department. “They still have to run through the gauntlet of the law.”

During Bernhardt’s tenure, the Interior Department moved to open up more public lands for energy development by reviving a stalled coal leasing program and selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When he leaves office Wednesday, Bernhardt is set to be replaced on a temporary basis by a top-ranking career employee in the department. Biden has nominated Deb Haaland, a Democratic representative from New Mexico, to be Interior secretary.

Bernhardt said he was optimistic that nine newly issued Arctic oil leases will endure, despite Biden’s vow to “permanently protect the refuge.” The Arctic leasing program was compelled by Congress as a way to help pay for the 2017 tax cuts.

“The most difficult things to change are legislative victories,” Bernhardt said, predicting that the Arctic leasing program “will be long-lasting.”

Biden can announce some moves immediately after he’s sworn in, though analysts say a possible ban on selling new oil, gas and coal leases on federal land could require additional steps -- and in some cases would be legally vulnerable. Biden has promised to rule out oil and gas leasing in U.S. Arctic waters and ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.

Both federal law and Bureau of Land Management plans governing land under the agency’s control mandate regular lease sales.

There are political factors at play too. The oil and gas industry has already warned of lost jobs and revenue if the Biden administration stops issuing fossil fuel leases on federal lands, particularly in New Mexico, where burgeoning crude production once paid for a free-college program and now provides roughly 39% of the state’s budget.

And coal still has committed champions in Congress, including Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, set to take the gavel as head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- a panel key to advancing Biden’s Interior and Energy Department nominees.

Given that dynamic, “are you going to end all coal leasing?” Bernhardt asked. “What does New Mexico say if you say we’re not going to do permitting anymore?”

“When you sit down as a secretary of Interior, you’ll find out you have a lot of discretion, but with that discretion comes some real challenges,” Bernhardt added. The Biden administration will have to figure out “how sustainable” these moves are, he said.

One Trump administration federal land initiative that is expected to endure during Biden’s presidency is the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation Trump signed in August to deliver billions in funding to national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal lands. “Over time, I think that will become one of the most significant recreation and conservation pieces of legislation, certainly in my lifetime,” Bernhardt said.

Under Trump, the Interior Department did not complete work on a new five-year plan to sell offshore oil leases, despite an initial blueprint that would have made more than 90% of U.S. waters available for development. In the final weeks before last November’s election, Trump issued orders ruling out oil leasing near Florida and several southern states.

Bernhardt’s department manages the National Park Police that responded to the U.S. Capitol grounds after the Jan. 6 siege. Bernhardt swiftly condemned the assault on the Capitol, saying it was “violence and lawlessness” that “cannot and will not be tolerated.” But he didn’t go so far as other top Trump officials in leaving cabinet posts early or in criticizing the president’s role in stoking the angry masses.

Bernhardt blamed missteps in planning by military and the Capitol Police, saying their posture was driven by concerns about the criticism directed at law enforcement over the summer.

“They probably should have been leaning a little further forward, in my opinion, but they were very concerned about optics,” Bernhardt said. “I think that as time goes on, we will see that clearly described.”

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