Fossil fuel-friendly lawmakers tie debt ceiling to handouts for oil and gas industry

May 1, 2023

By Rachael Hamby

Unable to win support in the Senate for their unpopular policies, fossil fuel allies in the House have resorted to trying to use the debt limit fight to pass their massive giveaway to oil and gas companies. Last week, the House narrowly passed H.R.2811, which would lift America’s debt limit, avoiding the economic catastrophe that would ensue if the U.S. defaults on its debt payments. But the House bill also includes a slew of unrelated measures on various energy and natural resource topics. Most of these provisions are recycled from H.R.1, the House leadership’s marquee energy package full of industry handouts, along with a grab bag of messaging priorities, such as a section expressing disapproval of the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline. H.R.1 passed the House earlier this spring but died in the Senate.

Among other things, H.R.2811 (like H.R.1 before it) once again tries to reverse many of the Inflation Reduction Act’s reforms to the oil and gas leasing program on American public lands: the bill would return royalty rates, minimum bids, and rental rates to the outdated rates that were put in place in 1920; eliminate the fees companies pay to nominate land for leasing; restore noncompetitive leasing, letting companies lock up public land for just $1.50 an acre; and impose a per-page fee for exercising the right to protest lease sales. The bill would also require quarterly lease sales to be held in a variety of states, including several Western states, and remove the Interior Secretary’s authority to determine which lands are eligible for oil and gas leasing. This provision would pave the way for companies — or anyone — to lock up public lands by nominating and leasing parcels regardless of their oil and gas production potential or any other values and uses of the land.

A drilling rig in Nevada, Bureau of Land Management

The bill would also grant an oil industry wish list of exemptions from the environmental review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For example, accessing federal mineral resources from neighboring non-federally managed lands would be exempt from NEPA; this provision would open up to 57 million acres to drilling without requiring federal environmental review. At the same time, the bill would require assessments of resource and revenue potential before agencies update land use management plans or enact mineral withdrawals, a provision that is intended to elevate drilling and mining over other important public land uses such as recreation and conservation.

While some permitting updates have bipartisan support because they would also benefit renewable energy projects, combining those provisions with a laundry list of industry giveaways made the package a “nonstarter” for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “The package is a wish list for Big Oil, gutting important environmental safeguards on fossil fuel projects,” Schumer said of H.R.1 earlier this spring.

Drilling infrastructure in New Mexico, Bureau of Land Management

This approach is the exact opposite of what Westerners say they want their lawmakers to prioritize. According to the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project 2023 Conservation in the West poll, two out of three Westerners say that reducing the need for fossil fuels by expanding the use of renewable energy is a greater priority than drilling for more fossil fuels. And more than seven in ten Westerners support only allowing oil and gas companies the right to drill on public lands where there is a high likelihood to actually produce oil and gas. Even among the less-than-one-third of voters who want to prioritize fossil fuel development, more than three-quarters of those voters support only drilling where there is actually oil and gas.

During 2022, when American families struggled with high gasoline prices and heating bills, oil and gas companies were making record profits of over $400 billion, a 146 percent increase from the previous year, while sitting on thousands of approved but unused permits to drill in order to keep supply low and demand — and prices and profits — high. The public lands that the proponents of H.R.2811 want to give away to oil and gas companies are unlikely to be used to produce oil and gas to bring down prices for Americans — instead they’ll be used to pad the books of oil and gas companies to keep investors happy and prices high, while preventing these lands from being managed for other values important to Westerners.

A pumpjack in Utah, Bureau of Land Management

These companies don’t need help from Congress — they need to pay their fair share for exploiting public resources and compensate Americans for tying up millions of acres of public lands in unused leases. As communities across the West face the reality of the climate crisis, it’s irresponsible to prohibit agencies from considering the effects of more drilling for any reason, but especially when that reason is to grow already-record-high corporate profits.

Like H.R.1 before it, H.R.2811 is almost certain to die immediately in the Senate, and President Joe Biden has said he will veto it if it gets to his desk. Unlike the death of H.R.1, however, failure to increase the debt limit will have drastic impacts for the American economy. Tying the debt limit to unpopular and unpassable policies demonstrates that fossil fuel allies in the House care only about giveaways to oil and gas companies and are not serious about legislating in the best interests of the American people.

Featured image: An open-pit mine in Nevada, Bureau of Land Management