Energy development on federal land — and the future of the oil and gas industry as a whole — has become a hot-button issue under the Biden administration. Republicans in Congress who represent energy states are particularly concerned, since one of President Biden's very first actions in office was to sign an executive order pausing all new leasing on public lands.
"Make no mistake this is not a pause or a review, this is a ban and currently there is no end in sight," said Sen. Barrasso, (R) Wyoming.
Barrasso is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which hosted a hearing Tuesday on the Department of the Interior's onshore oil and gas leasing program.
Barrasso said the president's action is costing jobs and revenue in states that have significant oil and gas investment on public lands.
"So today, Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West is under attack," Barrasso announced.
But an official with Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has jurisdiction over federal permitting and leasing, told Barrasso and others on the committee that this is not an attack, but in fact the review of a program that the General Accounting Office, for years, has said is at high risk for fraud, abuse, waste and mismanagement.
"Too often, the extraction of resources has been rushed at the expense of people, wildlife and other uses," said Nada Culver, BLM's Deputy Director of Policy and Programs
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, new to the committee this session, questioned Culver about a letter BLM sent out last month regarding procedures for extending permits that have already been approved.
According to Lankford's reading of the letter, the bureau's field offices can no longer approve routine lease extensions, but rather they must all now go through D.C.
"Is that correct or not?" Lankford asked.
"This is not correct, Senator," Culver responded. "This is the way the BLM has operated before, under previous administrations and now under this administration."
But Lankford persisted and finally turned to one of the other witnesses on panel, Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub, who said that a few days after receiving the BLM letter, "300 extension requests were sent in from our industry that I’m aware of and not any of those have been approved yet. Twenty-six of those were ours." said Hollub.
"These are...extension requests that would have been pretty typical, routine in the past [and] they have not yet been approved," Hollub continued.
"So, things seem to be significantly different than what they were before," Lankford followed.
BLM's Culver testified that drilling on federal land continues during this pause and that, on federal lands already leased, there are currently more than 8,000 approved drilling permits ready for use.
Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Manchin, (D) West Virginia, said at the outset of the hearing that it was his hope to have a robust discussion "about the current state of play for energy development on our federal land and set a baseline of facts, from which to discuss reforms on the Congress and that the administration will consider going forward."
It's not clear when BLM's review will be complete. Last week the agency announced that the pause on new federal leases would continue through the second quarter.