By the numbers: Onshore oil and gas leasing and drilling under the Biden administration

Mar 8, 2022

By the numbers: Onshore oil and gas leasing and drilling under the Biden administration

Mar 8, 2022

The Biden administration inherited a federal oil and gas program that was broken and rigged in favor of the oil and gas industry. It has been this way for decades, as documented repeatedly by the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, and DOI’s Inspector General. And it reached a low point during the Trump administration, which tried (and failed) to make oil and gas drilling the “dominant” use of America’s public lands.

While many industry lobbyists and politicians are using the current crisis to call for opening more public lands for drilling, publicly-available data compellingly shows why watering down drilling safeguards is exactly the wrong path to take. Combined, the oil and gas industry holds leases to nearly 25 million acres of publicly-owned minerals, almost half of which sit unused. Companies now hold nearly 9,000 approved, but unused drilling permits, all of which could be put to use today. Further, oil production on public lands is at levels not seen in nearly two decades, despite industry claims that the Biden administration has suppressed domestic production.

On January 27, 2021, President Biden paused leasing and ordered a review of the federal oil and gas program and it was met with widespread support from western stakeholders and communities. The pause was halted by a federal court, however, forcing the administration to resume lease sales. In the months that followed, the programmatic review and reform effort has not proceeded as swiftly as many had hoped.

As a result, oil and gas CEOs continue to receive sweetheart deals that allow them to line their pockets at the expense of public lands, waters, wildlife, and meaningful action on climate change. Without reform to the federal oil and gas program there is little stopping the oil and gas industry from continuing to exploit a rigged, decades-old system that is:

  • Costing taxpayers billions of dollars in revenue for school-funding, road improvements, and other critical needs;
  • Putting taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars of the oil and gas industry’s clean-up costs;
  • Impairing access for camping, hunting, and fishing – even on public lands that have no drilling potential; and
  • Letting speculators purchase leases for as little as $1.50 an acre.

This dashboard provides an at-a-glance look at onshore oil and gas leasing under the Biden administration, including permitting and production that has occurred on leases sold prior to the start of the administration and statistics from past and upcoming lease sales. Learn more about the data on our dashboard, or jump straight into the data. This dashboard will be regularly updated.

Data Types

To understand this dashboard and the terms therein, it’s important to understand the overall process for leasing and development on America’s public lands. Industry is in the driver’s seat from the get-go. The process starts when companies nominate lands they’d like to see offered for lease. In response, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is obligated to evaluate nominated lands, usually through a public process. A lease sale is held at the conclusion of that process. Once a company has a lease, the next step is to get a drilling permit. Because of how the outdated rules are written, it’s very hard for BLM to say “no” at this point and refuse to issue the permit, regardless of potential impacts on other values and our climate.

Production & Lost Royalties

Oil and gas companies were able to continue operations on valid, existing leases while the federal leasing pause was in effect, but that didn’t stop them from making false claims about the impact of the pause and the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) review of the federal oil and gas program. In truth, oil production on federal public lands has not been interrupted at all during the Biden administration, and is now at its highest level since at least 2003.

While oil and gas companies continued producing oil and gas from our public lands, they did so under a century-old royalty rate that doesn’t provide taxpayers with a fair return.Taxpayers already lost an estimated 12.9 billion in revenue between FY 2012 and FY 2021 because the federal onshore rate does not match the federal offshore rate, at 18.75 percent, and is significantly lower than the rates of many oil and gas producing states, including New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming.

Drilling Permits & Taxpayer Reclamation Burden

At the end of September 2021, the oil and gas industry had nearly 25 million acres of federal public lands under lease, roughly half of which—12.3 million acres—were unused and non-producing. Even while the federal leasing pause was in effect, oil and gas companies were still able to apply for drilling permits, and in the first year of the Biden administration, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved 3,564 new drilling permits.

Before production on any well begins, operators have to post a bond (like a security deposit) that can be used to plug the well and clean up the surrounding land in case the company goes bankrupt or illegally abandons the well. On average, it can cost up to $145,000 to reclaim oil and gas wells on federal lands—and much more for modern shale wells—and yet due to inadequate federal bonding rates that haven’t been updated since the 1950s and 60s, BLM currently holds an average bond of only $2,122 per well. This means that BLM may have only $7.6 million to cover the clean-up costs for all of the 3,564 new wells approved for drilling in the first year of the Biden administration, even though it could cost as much as $517 million to fully reclaim them, leading to a massive bill for taxpayers.

Noncompetitive & Speculative Leasing

Due to a glaring policy loophole known as noncompetitive leasing, the oil and gas industry can buy leases that do not sell at competitive auctions for a minimal $1.50/acre fee. By definition, noncompetitive leases are those that the market has already determined have little or no value for oil and gas drilling, and so they are often acquired for speculative reasons. And as a result, noncompetitive leases rarely end up producing any oil and gas—even though they burden our public lands and divert resources away from other valuable uses of our public lands, like outdoor recreation.

Even when leases sell at auction, they frequently go for a minimum bid of only $2/acre, dramatically undervaluing our public lands. Similar to noncompetitively leased lands, those sold for minimum bid are often acquired speculatively and rarely produce oil and gas.

Companies Operating On Public Lands

Nominations: Under the current rules, anyone can – for free – anonymously nominate any parcel of public land for leasing. This is another form of waste in the federal oil and gas program, as speculators routinely nominate millions of acres of public land with no drilling potential, which forces BLM to begin a lengthy and time-consuming evaluation process.

Leases: The oil and gas industry has stockpiled far more leases than they actually use. The industry is currently sitting on 9.9 million acres of idle leases in the West—47.4 percent of all leases in the region. That land mass of idled leases, which is generating minimal revenues for taxpayers, is larger than Maryland and Delaware put together

Drilling Permits: In addition to millions of acres of idle leases that could be drilled, as of May 2022, the oil and gas industry has 8,920 approved, but unused, drilling permits on hand, over 92 percent of which are in the West.

Data dashboard