The Interior Department said Thursday that it will propose an offshore drilling program too late to replace the previous version before it expires, frustrating energy advocates who accused the administration of dragging its feet on domestic fossil fuel production.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the proposed five-year plan would be issued by June 30, the expiration date for the current 2017-22 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program.
Her announcement means the program is guaranteed to lapse without a successor in place, which critics described as unprecedented.
“Interior has had 16 months to fulfill its statutory obligation to develop and maintain an offshore oil and gas leasing program and it has failed. No other administration has failed in this way,” said National Ocean Industries Association President Erik Milito.
Ms. Haaland cited the Trump administration’s lack of progress on the plan and conflicting litigation, saying “there has been a lot to do to catch up.”
She was pressed at Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about when the next offshore energy sale would be held, but she declined to speculate.
“I don’t think there is an actual deadline,” Ms. Haaland said.
She promised to keep the committee posted on the department’s progress, but her assurances did little to alleviate the worries of Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican.
“That’s the concern, actually, that all of us have, is that there’s actually no deadline, that the proposal to talk about it is coming on the date it should be done, and that this is going to then stretch out for the next two or three years of talking about it,” Mr. Lankford said. “So we’re trying to figure out when’s the deadline to actually start leasing.”
Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau blamed the delay on the Trump administration, saying that it completed only the first step of the three-step process by the end of President Trump’s term in January 2021.
“The Trump administration did the first step in 2018 and then they dropped the process, largely because their energy dominance rhetoric caused a lot of alarm, caused a lot of pushback,” Mr. Beaudreau told the committee. “It is appropriate for us to take a step and be deliberate as we think about potential future leasing described in the five-year program.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the energy committee, raised concerns about the department’s statement that the proposed program “is not a decision to issue specific leases or to authorize any drilling or development.”
The release of the proposed program and environmental impact statement triggers a process that takes from six months to a year to complete, starting with a 90-day comment period.
Those comments are used to develop and publish the final proposed program, prompting a 60-day congressional review period, after which the plan may be adopted.
“What that statement says is by the end of June we will take step number two. And it’s just step number two in a three-step process,” Mr. Beaudreau told the chairman. “No decisions about leasing will be made until step number three. That’s all that says.”
The looming expiration of the offshore program comes with energy leasing sales on federal lands and waters at a standstill under the Biden administration.
Mr. Manchin began the hearing on the department’s $18 billion budget request for fiscal 2023 by prodding Ms. Haaland to take action on oil and natural gas leasing.
The Biden administration announced in early 2021 a “pause” to review the federal program, but Mr. Manchin said “it has become crystal clear that the ‘pause’ is in fact a ‘ban.’”
“In July, while you were here during last year’s budget hearing, I made clear that the time for a pause had come and gone,” he said in his prepared remarks. “But almost a year and a half into the administration, and as the world begs for North American oil and gas, we still have no new leases.”
He noted that the administration last week canceled three oil-and-gas leasing sales, two in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
American Petroleum Institute senior vice president Frank Macchiarola said the announcement means Interior is “significantly behind in this multi-year process and will release a proposed program by June 30 — the day they should be finalizing it.”
“This is one more example of the disconnect between the administration’s political rhetoric and policy reality,” Mr. Macchiarola said. “As energy prices and geopolitical volatility continue to rise, we urge the administration to end the continued mixed signals on energy policy and remove regulatory hurdles that are hindering American producers’ ability to increase supply and meet the growing energy demand.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council said that while issuing a five-year offshore leasing program is required by law, “that doesn’t necessarily mean the secretary of interior has to propose new leases.”
“The next five-year plan is a huge opportunity for the Biden administration to take major climate action with long-term consequences,” said council ocean advocate Valerie Cleland. “No new offshore leasing would mean we aren’t locking ourselves into decades of more fossil fuel use and the impacts to communities that come along with that.”
Mr. Biden vowed during the 2020 presidential campaign to ban new drilling on federal lands and waters, citing the need to transition from fossil fuels in the name of combating climate change.