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How Biden Administration Plans To Navigate Challenging Topic Of Climate Change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After four years of the Trump administration denying climate change and prioritizing fossil fuel development, President Biden's first few days already marked a stark shift in federal environmental policy. The Biden team has announced a slew of policy actions, including a temporary ban on new oil and gas leasing on public lands. For more on that, let's bring in Nathan Rott from NPR's climate team. Hello there.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

KELLY: Good afternoon to you. So walk us through these changes for oil and gas development on public lands. What exactly was the announcement?

ROTT: So this is one of the boldest promises that Biden made on the campaign trail, and it was one a lot of folks were kind of anxiously waiting to see if he'd follow through with. It could be seen as kind of a litmus test, let's say, for how serious he's going to be about addressing the climate crisis. And so what he's doing is he's going to pause new mineral extraction and development on public lands for 60 days, and that's significant because roughly a quarter of all of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels extracted from public lands. But those fossil fuels also generate a lot of revenue for states and local economies, especially here in the West. So politically, it could be seen as being pretty politically fraught.

KELLY: Yeah. OK, so a pause, 60 days - but that is obviously more than enough to draw pushback from the oil and gas industry. I'm wondering, what about states that have profited from that industry?

ROTT: Yeah. Well, they've definitely been some of the most vocal critics of this thus far. You know, a study out of the University of Wyoming that took place about a month ago found that this type of ban, if it was made permanent - which is what a lot of people in the environmental groups and some parts of the Democratic Party want to see - it could cost eight Western states $8 billion in tax revenues, New Mexico, Wyoming being the hardest hit. I talked to a land surveyor named Cevin Imus, who does a lot of work with the oil and gas companies in Wyoming's Powder River basin, yesterday. And he said he expects this move to cause a lot of investment and even existing fossil fuel projects to dry up.

CEVIN IMUS: Your backend's going to disappear. Why would you invest in something that you just know is not - doesn't have a strong hold to make you money? So our economy is going to suffer tremendously.

ROTT: Now, there are two really important caveats here. One, there wasn't a lot of new investment already happening in oil and gas because the pandemic has dropped the price of oil so dramatically. And two, this won't have any impact on fossil fuel production on private land, which is where the vast majority of oil and gas comes from in the U.S.

KELLY: OK, an important caveat there. These last four years, Nate, we have heard a lot about the Trump administration opening up parts of the country to oil and gas leasing, I'm thinking the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being the most recent.

ROTT: Yeah.

KELLY: Does this order impact that? Does it offset those actions?

ROTT: So this is a bit interesting, and the answer is yes and no. So before he announced this larger moratorium, Biden announced a hold on lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Day 1. But you're hitting on an important point, which is that, you know, the ways the Trump administration boosted oil and gas are going to have lasting effects. Here's John Leshy, who worked at the Interior Department under the Clinton and Carter administrations.

JOHN LESHY: I mean, the Trump administration basically conducted a kind of a fire sale on federal oil and gas leases. And what they sold was just sort of bought by people for peanuts putting stuff in their stockpile, you know, in their inventory.

ROTT: So the oil and gas industry have this massive inventory of leases that they're already sitting on thanks to the Trump administration, which makes this moratorium less impactful than it would otherwise be.

KELLY: Real quick, Nate, what about moves related to climate change - rejoining the Paris climate agreement, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline? What's your read on those?

ROTT: Well, it means that Biden isn't just going to talk the talk when it comes to climate change. He's going to walk the walk. We had a sense of that when he got elected based off of who he nominated to agencies. But we're seeing that this was a Day 1 priority, and it's going to be a big priority for his administration going forward.

KELLY: NPR's Nathan Rott, thank you.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.