WASHINGTON – As the Home Office awaits its new secretary, the agency is already trying to anchor key parts of President Biden’s environmental agenda, particularly on oil and gas restrictions, in laying the foundations for fulfilling some of the government’s key promises on climate change to accomplish.
New Mexico representative Deb Haaland, Mr Biden’s candidate to head the department, is likely to face a showdown vote in the Senate later this month amid louder Republican concerns over their past positions on oil and gas drilling. But even without them, an agency that has spent much of the past four years opening up vast swaths of land for commercial exploitation has suddenly turned around.
The department has suspended the sale of leases in the Gulf of Mexico due to an early executive order requiring a temporary freeze on new drilling leases for all public land and waters and requiring a review of the leasing program. It has frozen drilling activities at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, delayed rollbacks from the Trump era to protect migratory birds and the owl in the north, and taken the first steps to restore two national monuments in Utah and one off the Atlantic coast, the Mr. Trump largely dismantled.
Earlier this week, an administrative official said the Interior Ministry was ready to take the next steps in preparation for a review of the federal oil and gas leasing program.
Even critics of the government’s agenda said they were surprised by the pace of action by the agency.
“They are obviously moving quickly and aggressively,” said Nicolas Loris, an economist who focuses on environmental policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
This aggressiveness and Ms. Haaland’s long history of closing down fossil fuel wells and pipelines has put the agency in the line of fire of Republicans and the oil and gas industry.
“I almost feel like your nomination is some sort of proxy battle for the future of fossil fuels,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, Ms. Haaland during her confirmation hearing last week.
The Environmental Protection Agency will ultimately be at the center of the regulatory battles over climate change as it is the lead agency overseeing emissions from the power and transportation sectors – the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
However, the Home Office, which decides when and whether to sell publicly owned coal, oil, and gas, is at the heart of the ever-contentious struggle to keep such resources “in the ground” – that is, whether the vast majority of America’s fossil fuels should be left unused to avoid dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Mr. Biden has already appointed nearly 50 high-level domestic officials across the agency, including many veterans of the Obama administration who are adept at pulling the levers of politics. These include Kate Kelly, who spent six years at the Home Office before going to the Liberal Center for American Progress, where she focused on public land policy, and Laura Daniel Davis, who served as chief of staff to former secretaries Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar. This time she is the assistant chief secretary for land and minerals management.
Perhaps the most significant driver of the agency’s most aggressive early action, say government supporters, was David Hayes, who served as assistant home secretary in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Mr Hayes worked on Mr Biden’s transition and was selected as the President’s Special Advisor on Climate Change prior to Inauguration Day.
“These are people who know how to get things done,” said Sarah Greenberger, interim chief conservation officer for the National Audubon Society.
The dates had an immediate impact. For example, the day after Mr Biden named a new offshore energy regulator with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the office revived an offshore wind farm review near Martha’s Vineyard that the Trump administration canceled.
Ms. Greenberger noted that measures such as the repeal of the Trump-era rule, after which the protection of migratory birds was gutted, required particularly quick planning as the Biden administration had only a short window of time to act before the rule was on Should Go February 8th A native Alaska group missed a deadline to conduct a seismic survey at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The department decided to effectively end the investigation.
“There was a tremendous amount of thought during the transition, particularly to understand what needed to happen and what opportunities there were,” said Ms. Greenberg.
Critics saw it darker.
“They wonder if they’ll treat the new secretary as a figurehead and if the MPs will move on regardless of what they planned,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil and gas association.
In a statement, Interior Ministry chief of staff Jennifer Van der Heide said the agency’s existing staff are working to implement Mr Biden’s election promises until Ms. Haaland is confirmed.
“There are some actions we can or must take quickly, but when we have a secretary she will provide the guidance, experience and vision to restore morale within the department, build a clean energy economy, and strengthen relationships among nations empower with tribes and inspire a movement to better protect the land, waters and wildlife of our nation, ”said Ms. Van der Heide.
The Home Office manages approximately 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters. The agencies lease many of these acres for oil and gas drilling as well as wind and solar parks. It monitors the country’s national parks and nature reserves, protects threatened and endangered species, reclaims abandoned mine sites, monitors the government’s relationship with the country’s 574 nationally recognized tribes, and provides scientific data on the effects of climate change.
This wide range of government agencies has allowed Interior to act faster than smaller agencies, which rely more on slow regulation churn, experts noted. Interior has opened consultations with tribal leaders to hear their federal policy proposals and lifted restrictions that Trump’s Home Secretary David Bernhardt had placed on the Land and Water Fund to prevent money from being used to purchase public land becomes.
However, some key moves – such as an expected revision of the Endangered Species Act, which Mr Trump’s administration has put through regulation – will have to wait for a Senate-approved secretary.
Mr Biden’s Home Office is ultimately defined by the reversal of fossil fuels after four years of aggressive public-sector power generation by the Trump administration.
At Ms. Haaland’s confirmation hearing, Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso found that she was in favor of keeping fossil fuels “in the ground.” He pressed them on where his state oil and gas workers and others who depend on drilling will work when Mr Biden’s drilling break becomes permanent.
Ms. Haaland tried to reassure Republicans that she would implement Mr Biden’s policy of stopping future fracking without banning it. Indeed, Mr Biden’s position is not far from that of Mrs Haaland. He campaigned for the promise to “ban new oil and gas permits for public land and water,” and it remains unclear for the time being whether the Biden government will introduce a permanent moratorium.
Ms. Sgamma, whose group has filed a lawsuit against Mr. Biden’s order, believes the administration’s review of the lease program should indeed be dragged out for the duration of Mr. Biden’s tenure.
“In the meantime, we won’t expect any leasing or any slowdown in other permitted activities. So this is not a break in leasing, “she said, adding,” Whether you call it a break or a year-long ban, it’s illegal and I like our chances in court. “
Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for EarthJustice, an environmental group, hopes the early break will be a down payment on Mr Biden’s election pledge.
“The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are not standing still,” he said.