President Biden’s decision on Wednesday to block drilling on millions of acres of Alaskan tundra was the latest in a series of aggressive actions recently taken by the administration to curtail fossil fuel extraction on public land and in federal waters.
Over the past several months, the administration has moved to bar drilling on 1.8 million acres of sagebrush steppe in Wyoming and on more than a million acres of public land in Colorado. It insulated more than 336,400 acres of public land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new oil and gas leasing and mining claims for the next two decades. And last month, it said it would remove about six million acres of potentially oil-rich areas from an upcoming federal lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico that is required by law.
The Interior Department has also raised the royalties that fossil fuel companies must pay to pull oil, gas and coal from public lands for the first time since 1920, while increasing more than tenfold the cost of the bonds that companies must pay before they start drilling. The Bureau of Land Management also wants to change how it manages the 245 million acres under its control by allowing conservation leases, similar to the way the agency auctions off parcels for drilling and mining.
Administration officials said the conservation efforts were not new and many of the drilling restrictions had been underway for months.
But several people close to the administration said Mr. Biden was personally stung by the outraged response in March from climate voters, particularly young environmentalists, after he approved the enormous Willow oil project in Alaska and that he is eager to win them back.
Energy analysts said they saw the new policies as an attempt to mend fences with young voters and as a sign of willingness to openly confront the oil industry.
“I see President Biden trying to reestablish green credentials ahead of the next election,” said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm.
Mr. Book said there has been a clear pivot in the administration’s posture from the days after Russia invaded Ukraine, when gas prices spiked and Mr. Biden urged oil companies to drill more.
“Now what they’re doing is, they are leasing less, and they are offering less when they lease. And they are doing it with higher royalty rates,” Mr. Book said. “It’s got an awful lot to do with the Willow decision.”
It’s a strategy that comes with political risks as oil prices rise and Republicans and at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, seek to paint Mr. Biden as a radical environmentalist.
The entire Alaska delegation condemned Mr. Biden’s decision to prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of pristine wilderness in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and cancel all drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, called the decision reckless and illegal.
“Now the Biden administration, at a time when America and our allies need Alaska’s resources more than ever, has decided to go their own way by further locking Alaska down while refusing to consult with the Alaska Natives who actually live on the North Slope,” Senator Murkowski said in a statement. “It’s bad enough to tear up legal contracts and renege on federal commitments. But it’s even more unconscionable that the Biden administration is penalizing Alaska right as it allows Iran to produce more of its oil and solicits the same from Venezuela.”
Mr. Manchin, who faces a potentially difficult race should he run for re-election next year, said the administration was “caving to the radical left with no regard for clear direction from Congress or American energy security.,”
As a candidate in 2020, Mr. Biden called climate change an existential threat and said the nation must move away from oil, gas and coal, the burning of which is dangerously heating the planet. He promised “no new drilling, period” on federal property.
But keeping that pledge as president has proved difficult.
The week he took office, Mr. Biden issued a moratorium on new federal oil and gas leases but months later, a Louisiana judge issued an injunction that required the administration to hold lease sales. That legal case was effectively made moot in 2022 when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping clean energy law that also mandated new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.
Still, the administration continued to reassess where and whether new drilling and mining should be permitted, current and former administration officials said.
“The president said ‘we’re going to stick to our guns’,” said David Hayes, who served as a special assistant to Mr. Biden for climate policy, referring to drilling restrictions in Alaska and elsewhere. “The president has consistently put new leases under the microscope.”
Last year, the Bureau of Land Management analyzed 646 parcels covering 733,000 acres of federal land that the oil industry had sought for leasing. The agency cut that down by 80 percent, offering just 173 parcels on 144,000 acres, according to the administration.
In addition, the Biden administration in November directed the Bureau of Land Management to apply new criteria to future lease sales. Officials were told that any new drilling sites should be located near existing oil and gas infrastructure, should not harm fish and wildlife habitats and should not be near historic or cultural resources or recreation areas.
The results have unfolded in just the past few months.
“The federal oil and gas program is a big ship and it takes time to turn around, but it is being steered in a new direction faster than it has ever been before,” said Matt Lee, chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Many environmental advocates praised the new approach, particularly the protection of more than half of the 26-million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
But Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the president’s Alaska protections were insufficient at a time of climate crisis. And she assailed the Interior Department for holding a congressionally mandated oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico next month, despite the agency limiting the area to reduce the risks to the endangered Rice’s whale. Scientists estimate there may only be only 51 of those whales remaining in the Gulf.
“Keeping options open for any new oil and gas drilling could lock us into more fossil fuel emissions for decades to come, and we can’t afford that,” Ms. Monsell said.
Scientists have said that nations must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects if the world is to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which it will be increasingly hard for humans to adapt to extreme weather. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius.
Oil executives said they saw a sustained attack on their industry by the Biden administration that only briefly receded last year in the heat of the Ukraine war and skyrocketing gas prices.
“What we’re seeing right now is, on all federal lands and all federal waters, they are doing everything they can to stifle production in the United States,” said Mike Somers, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
Still, domestic oil production has increased by 1.3 million barrels a day since 2022 and is expected to hit records in 2023 and 2024, according to the Energy Information Association. Natural gas production is also expected to continue to grow. Mr. Somers argued that most of that growth is occurring on private lands.