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Politics chat: Biden opens more land for oil drilling

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Happy Easter. The eggs may be rolling and the cinnamon rolls may be baking, but politics never lets up. Well, maybe that's just for us here in Washington and for me. NPR's Asma Khalid joins us now for a political check-in. She's a White House correspondent and also a host of the NPR Politics Podcast. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Let's start with oil and gas. The Biden administration is resuming the sale of oil and gas leases on public land. This seems like it might be a little bit complicated, though. Let's start with what it means.

KHALID: Sure. Well, look. You know, the major headline is that President Biden is opening up more public land to drilling. This is an announcement that was made on Friday afternoon by the Department of Interior. I will say there is some nuance here. You know, the department says that they're talking about roughly 144,000 acres, which sounds like a lot, but it's actually 80% less than the amount originally considered to be leased. Also, under the agency's new plan, drillers will have to now pay higher fees than ever before - 18.75% in royalty fees instead of just 12.5%. I should also note, you know, the president actually suspended new oil and gas leases shortly after he came into the White House, I believe, in January of 2021. And Biden has tried to prioritize climate initiatives and clean energy during his presidency to date. So this move, you know, I will say, is not occurring because the president suddenly had a change of heart and wants to suddenly pursue more fossil fuels. It's meant to comply with a federal court injunction that was brought by the oil and gas industry.

RASCOE: So the Biden administration didn't want additional drilling on public land. And the oil and gas companies went to courts. I wonder, though, like with gas prices so high, is this something that the administration is really upset about?

KHALID: You know, there is no doubt that the president is under pressure over prices at the pump. I will say, though, that there is very little any president can do about gas prices. But you see President Biden trying to move the numbers at the margin. I think that's why, you know, we've seen in recent weeks, for example, his decision to release a million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. And then this past week, we saw him announce plans to expand the sale of E15 gasoline over the summer - that's a gas made with a higher blend of ethanol. But look, Ayesha. I mean, more drilling on public land in the United States is not an immediate fix for high gas prices. And even if this land was leased tomorrow, it would still take some years for the oil to actually make it onto the market.

RASCOE: Yeah, but politically speaking, could this hurt the Biden coalition? Because some in green groups, I'm sure, are not happy about it.

KHALID: Yeah, you're right. I mean, environmental groups were certainly disappointed with this news. Climate is often a huge priority for young voters in particular. And I was struck by the statement I got from the Sunrise Movement. It's this youth-focused climate group. The statement said - and I'm quoting here - "This is why young people are doubting the political process altogether. If Biden wants to solve for voter turnout in 2022, he should actually deliver on the things he promised, not move farther away from them." I mean, strong words. And I will say young voters were key to Democratic wins in the 2018 midterms. They were key to Joe Biden's victory in 2020. And they really soured on him. You see this in poll after poll. And I've gone out and done interviews as well, and I hear this disappointment among young people - not just on climate but on issues like student loan forgiveness. And, you know, that, you know, Ayesha, I think is really interesting because just this past week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made some news. She said the idea of canceling some portion of student loan debt is still on the table. I'm sure you remember that during his campaign, the president had pledged to forgive $10,000 a person of student loan debt. But that hasn't happened. And analysts say, again, this issue comes back, like most policy issues right now in Washington, to inflation and concerns that forgiving debt could actually make inflation worse.

RASCOE: OK, on inflation - it was higher in the beginning of Ronald Reagan's first term, and unemployment was much higher. And Reagan went on to win reelection in a landslide. Maybe, you know, Biden is hoping to, you know - history will repeat itself.

KHALID: You are right about Ronald Reagan. But I will say that the political side effects of inflation are not just about the president right now, right? They're about his party. And the midterms are a referendum on the president. And at the moment, it seems like when you look at polls, voters are deeply concerned about inflation. In some cases, you know, they're more concerned about that than they are about the war in Ukraine, crime, just about anything else. And I will say, you know, 1981, 1982 - those midterms around that time - there was an actual recession leading up to it. And the '82 midterms were not great for Republicans. Democrats picked up, I think, about two dozen seats in the House. I will say, you know, I think it is also worth keeping in mind that the parties are more - I would say not more - they're actually less cooperative nowadays. And I think that if Biden loses control of Congress, it could be even more difficult for him to get any of his agenda passed during those final two years of his term.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Asma, thank you so much.

KHALID: My pleasure. Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.