Biden releases smallest offshore oil program in U.S. history

By Heather Richards | 09/29/2023 08:30 AM EDT

The highly anticipated plan limits new offshore oil leases to the Gulf of Mexico, with three sales over five years.

The Centenario deepwater drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Centenario deepwater drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The Biden administration plans to hold three oil lease sales in the Gulf over the next five years. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo

The Biden administration plans to hold three oil lease sales off the nation’s coasts over the next five years, under the smallest national oil program in the country’s history.

On Friday, the Interior Department will publish a highly anticipated offshore oil and gas schedule that will shape the extent of the country’s future sale of offshore drilling rights. Under the schedule, the agency would conduct oil sales in the Gulf of Mexico in 2025, 2027 and 2029, according to the administration.

That’s far less than the previous oil program, inked during the Obama administration and ending in 2022, which held two sales most years. The largest program on record, written by the pro-development administration of President Ronald Reagan, included 41 scheduled sales between 1982 and 1987.


The Biden administration said Friday that the limited schedule aligns with its goal to reach net-zero emissions across the U.S. economy by 2050. It also emphasized that the oil program would be limited to the Gulf, “where there is existing production and infrastructure,” a nod to President Joe Biden’s broader strategy of limiting federal oil and gas development to places where it already occurs.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to building a clean energy future that ensures America’s energy independence,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

The final schedule must go through a 60-day congressional and presidential review period before Haaland can formally approve it.

The program takes a middle-of-the-road approach that is characteristic of how the administration has tried to square its management of the nation’s oil reserves with its broader strategy to address climate change. The result is sure to cause outrage and frustration both in Congress and among climate activists.

Biden has weathered political pushback over federal fossil fuel production since taking office. GOP lawmakers accuse him of undermining the nation’s energy security by attempting to transition away from fossil fuels, which are the main drivers of climate change. But Democrats and environmental groups have criticized the president as well, urging him to honor a promise on the campaign trail in 2020 to retire the federal oil and gas program.

Still, many expected Biden to schedule at least a few oil sales offshore. The Inflation Reduction Act bars Interior from holding new offshore wind auctions unless a sizable offshore oil sale has also been held within the prior year.

The Biden administration has committed to reaching 110 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050 — a goal that requires additional offshore wind lease sales.

“The Proposed Program, which represents the smallest number of oil and gas lease sales in history, sets a course for the Department to support the growing offshore wind industry and protect against the potential for environmental damage and adverse impacts to coastal communities,” Haaland said.

The administration still has one oil sale left to hold from the Obama-era plan, scheduled in early November. With the release of the new oil program, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will call for nominations from industry on the location of future lease sales. The administration said it intended to “prioritize areas with greater potential for oil and gas development.”

The bureau will also begin the process of conducting a programmatic environmental impact statement to analyze the impacts of a “representative lease sale” in the upcoming five-year program.