Biden admin approves smallest offshore oil program in history

By Heather Richards | 12/15/2023 04:40 PM EST

The Interior Department touted that the plan is just enough to meet Inflation Reduction Act requirements that tie offshore wind leasing to oil and gas development.

An offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. John Manning/Kerr-McGee via Getty Images

The Biden administration approved the smallest offshore oil program in U.S. history Friday, a move that’s already provoked both outrage from Republicans and disappointment from climate activists who had urged the president to take more dramatic action.

Over the next five years, the Interior Department will hold just three oil auctions of drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico, where most of the nation’s oil and gas production occurs. The agency first announced its plans for the next five years of offshore drilling in September.

That makes the previously scheduled oil sale, taking place next week in the Gulf, the last opportunity for oil companies to buy leases in the nation’s waters until 2025.


The shrunken program is the latest example of the White House’s efforts to curtail the nation’s fossil fuels footprint on public lands and waters, despite mandates to allow some development of the nation’s large stores of crude oil and natural gas.

Climate activists had urged President Joe Biden to zero out oil sales in the five-year plan, consistent with his promise during the presidential campaign of 2020 to retire the nation’s drilling program. Oil supporters, however, demanded a return to previous norms with multiple oil auctions held every year.

Interior rewrites the schedule for offshore oil and gas leases every five years. Recent five-year programs have included at least two auctions annually in the Gulf of Mexico and some sales in Alaska. But Interior’s offshore oil programs historically could include dozens of sales.

The Biden administration allowed the last offshore oil program to end in 2022 without a replacement. A previous proposal floated by the Trump administration would have included 47 auctions over a five-year period.

Interior said Friday that its three-sale schedule is the minimum required to comply with the Inflation Reduction Act. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat who supports fossil fuels, included a provision in the 2022 climate-focused law that would prohibit new offshore wind leasing — a cornerstone in Biden’s decarbonization push — unless Interior holds an offshore oil sale of at least 60 million acres in the prior year.

The five-year program announced Friday includes an oil sale every other year, in 2025, 2027 and 2029, allowing Interior ample time to conduct new offshore wind auctions.

“These three lease sales are the minimum number that will enable the Interior Department’s offshore wind energy program to continue issuing leases in a way that will ensure continued progress towards the Administration’s goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030,” the department said Friday.