CQ Roll Call
Haaland pressed over Interior Department leasing schedule
By David Jordan, CQ
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Wednesday defended her department’s policy as Republicans said its oil and gas leasing activities have contributed to high fuel prices.
Haaland appeared before the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee to testify on the department’s fiscal 2023 budget request. At a proposed $18.1 billion, the proposal represents an increase of $1.9 billion, or 12 percent, over the fiscal 2022 enacted levels.
Much of the questioning focused on the administration's policy for oil and gas leasing on public lands. It was Haaland’s first appearance before Congress since the department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released a proposed five-year plan on July 1 that would govern offshore oil and gas lease sales from next year through 2028.
The proposed plan included options ranging from no lease sales to as many as 11. However, subcommittee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the option of considering no lease sales was “unacceptable” and  “actually harmful to our economy and our national security.”
When asked. by Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., on how likely it was for the department to finalize a plan that included no lease sales, Haaland said she could not prejudge the outcome. Haaland added that the department’s final decision will be determined after taking into consideration public comments, which they will accept through Oct. 6.
Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., challenged the assertion that more leasing was necessary at this time and compared the proposals to increase drilling on public lands to a heroin addiction. He said that fuel costs are primarily linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and price gouging by oil companies.
“The timeline for building out new infrastructure will not have an impact on the current cost of gas because of the long timeline it takes,” said Merkley. “The answer to the high costs of petroleum at the pump is an end to our addiction to that petroleum by rapidly building a new energy economy.”
Murkowski pushed back against his comparison to a drug addiction and said her state stands ready to produce more oil, including through the Conoco-Phillips led Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which the administration signaled its support for on July 8.
“Our reality as a country is that we have a resource that not only we need right now but the world needs right now and it is not just to fuel our vehicles,” said Murkowski. “We’re moving to different transportation fuels, but that is a transition. But everything that we use, practically, has some aspect of petroleum in it.”
Haaland and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., both cited the statistic that the oil and gas industry currently holds 9,000 unused leases for public lands and that it is in the position to increase production if it wishes. The industry has argued the statistic presents an oversimplification of the leasing process.
Hyde-Smith asked whether the Interior Department could be moving faster to approve permits for gathering lines and other infrastructure to ensure companies can take advantage of unused leases. Haaland said that the department continues to review these permits and that for offshore leases BOEM has approved 49 permits for gathering lines since November 2020.