Analysis: Biden administration prepares to unnecessarily offer hundreds of thousands of acres of public land to oil and gas companies

Mar 6, 2023

March 6, 2023

Planned oil and gas lease sales are an order of magnitude larger than required under the law

DENVER—A new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities finds the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed oil and gas lease sales planned for May and June 2023 would offer oil and gas companies leases on 260,000 more acres of public land than the agency is required to offer under the law. Lease sales of this magnitude contravene both the intent of the Inflation Reduction Act and the agency’s own internal guidance.

The areas being proposed for leasing include hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands that were nominated anonymously and in areas that the Interior department knows will likely never produce oil, even though the agency maintains broad discretion over the leasing program and is not required to offer up this land for lease.

This process of scoping hundreds of thousands of acres more than is necessary is a waste of Interior department resources and staff time, and unnecessarily complicates the selection process that goes into each lease sale.

The analysis offers a way forward for the bureau: by following the Inflation Reduction Act and properly implementing the guidance from a series of internal memos issued last fall, the Interior department can shrink the lease sales from the current proposed size of 282,000 acres to around 21,000 acres, which CWP’s analysis found would be the high end of what the government is required to offer under the IRA.

“There’s absolutely no reason to consider leasing this much public land to oil and gas companies while they celebrate 400 billion dollars in profits. By considering an order of magnitude more land than the law and BLM guidance requires, the agency is opening the upcoming lease sales to potential errors and abuse, and continuing to repeat the mistakes of the past century,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Fortunately, it’s not too late for the Interior department to change course and bring the upcoming lease sales in line with the letter and intent of the IRA.”


The Inflation Reduction Act says that in order for Interior to issue final rights-of-way for wind or solar projects on public land, BLM must also hold lease sales for oil and gas. Specifically, in order to issue a wind or solar right-of-way, BLM must have held an oil and gas lease sale in the past 120 days and have offered for lease at least 50 percent of the total acres nominated in the prior 12 months or two million acres, whichever is smaller. Since companies have only nominated a few hundred thousand acres in the past year, the 50 percent number is the relevant metric.

When taking into account the acres nominated before the IRA passed, and projecting nominations ahead into June 2023, CWP’s analysis found that BLM must offer approximately 150,000 acres for lease in the year before it finalizes new wind and solar rights-of-way. The agency already offered more than 128,000 acres for lease in the second quarter of 2022, which means the BLM should offer around 21,000 acres in the second quarter of 2023 to follow Congress’s intent in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Looking ahead, if oil and gas companies continue to nominate land at the current pace, BLM will never have to offer more than 35,000 acres for lease each quarter in order to keep approving wind and solar rights-of-way.

CWP’s analysis offers the Bureau of Land Management a straightforward path to shrinking upcoming lease sales to bring them in line with the IRA. In Wyoming, nearly 178,000 acres being considered for leasing are on lands with low or no potential of ever producing oil. Offering leases on those lands is discouraged by BLM’s post-IRA guidance.

Across the Nevada and Utah sales that have been proposed for the third quarter of 2023, 66 percent of the parcels being considered were nominated anonymously more than three years ago. In North Dakota, the majority of leases being considered were nominated more than ten years ago. Even considering these parcels for lease is in direct conflict with BLM’s own guidance on how to select public lands for leasing.

Finally, CWP’s analysis notes that the current leasing process, even if it is implemented perfectly, still poses a long-term threat to America’s public lands. The Instruction Memoranda represent guidance to agency staff as they plan lease sales. They are not binding rules, and they can be easily rewritten by future administrations. Even if the Interior department follows its guidance to the letter for the remainder of President Biden’s first term, it’s safe to assume that a future administration that is beholden to the oil industry would quickly toss that guidance out the door. This is one of the reasons why CWP warned that the Biden administration must codify its IRA implementation through the rulemaking process and must issue a draft rule by next month to avoid the risk of a final rule being thrown out under the Congressional Review Act in 2025.