US federal oil and gas leasing hits historically low levels

Sept. 11, 2022
Under Biden, leased acreage at lowest levels since 1940s.

Offshore staff

WASHINGTON, DC – The Biden administration has leased fewer acres for oil and gas drilling offshore and on federal land than any other administration in its early stages dating back to the end of World War II, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

President Biden’s Interior Department leased 126,228 acres for drilling through Aug. 20, his first 19 months in office, the analysis found. No other president since Richard Nixon in 1969-70 leased out fewer than 4.4 million acres at this stage in his first term.

Harry Truman was the last president to lease out fewer acres—65,658—in 1945-46, when offshore drilling was just beginning, and the federal government did not yet control the deepwater leases that have made up the largest part of the federal oil and gas leasing program in modern times.

Biden pledged to stop drilling on federal lands as a candidate, saying the nation needs to transition to clean energy. He softened his stance as oil prices soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—calling for boosting oil supplies to ease runaway inflation—but he has nonetheless spurned a leasing program that for decades has been a go-to asset for presidents looking to raise US energy production.

Under Biden’s stewardship, federal leasing is down 97% from the first 19 months of his predecessor Donald Trump’s term. The Wall Street Journal’s analysis, based on Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management data, quantifies the slowdown in onshore and offshore leasing under Biden. It did not include land leased in Alaska since the late 1990s, little of which fell into the periods analyzed.

During his first week in office, Biden imposed an indefinite moratorium on new leases, and Interior required additional reviews on drilling permits for the next 60 days. Since then, the administration has tried only one offshore sale, which was invalidated by a court in January. It resumed onshore leasing this summer following a June 2021 ruling by a federal judge in Louisiana that the president’s moratorium was unlawful.

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 requires onshore oil and gas leasing “at least quarterly.” While the Biden administration has been in office for six quarters, it has conducted auctions in just one of them.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan boosted leasing to record highs in the 1970s and early 1980s in response to geopolitical oil crises. The Reagan administration still holds the record, leasing nearly 48 million acres in his first 19 months, almost three times as much as any other presidential administration.