By Heather Richards, Jael Holzman, Scott Streater
The Interior Department’s energy strategy this year could help determine whether the Biden administration can secure a clean energy legacy as potent as the fossil fuel dominance that characterized public land policy during the Trump years.
The department will deploy a two-pronged approach: ramping up deployment of clean energy and attempting to constrain its massive fossil fuel programs through regulatory reform.
“They have plenty of time to get this done if they stay focused on it,” said Mark Squillace, a former Interior solicitor and federal law expert at the University of Colorado Law School.
Interior’s efforts will include authorizing solar energy in Western deserts and leasing waters in the Atlantic Ocean to offshore wind developers, as well as reexamining the rules that govern decommissioning offshore pipelines, drilling for oil and digging for federal coal.
The oil and gas reforms ahead, like hiking royalty rates and strengthening bonding requirements for oil drillers, are in lieu of shutting down the oil and gas program, as many activists continue to push for, and as President Biden once promised on the campaign trail. But the proposals on the table would be some of the most significant changes to federal leasing practices for oil and gas in decades.
Ryan Kellogg, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, said oil and gas reforms have legal merit. He stressed that these aren’t climate strategies so much as modernization of the federal program.
“I think of all of these reforms less as climate action and more as reforming federal oil and gas leasing,” he said.
On climate this year, Interior is working to stem methane emissions from abandoned infrastructure: The agency’s leadership is rapidly setting up a $4.7 billion national orphan well cleanup effort, which includes new attempts to identify orphan wells, track their methane pollution, plug old wells, reduce idle wells that are at risk of being abandoned, and fund states and tribes to do the same. The federal side of the program, funded at $250 million, must be set up by mid-January and will include a slew of federal agencies working together.