People around the world watched expectantly as global leaders convened at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 13. And many around the world were left angry and disillusioned when the conference seemed to culminate in a lot of sincere-sounding rhetoric, empty promises, and unenforceable measures from the world’s worst polluters, including the United States. As Dharna Noor recently wrote for The Boston Globe, “Leaders at the Glasgow talks made some bold pledges in the meeting’s final agreement, but no one can make them keep those promises. The United Nations has no power to enforce compliance, and there are no penalties for breaking pacts.” What’s worse, Noor continues, “According to a report by advocacy groups including Global Witness and Corporate Accountability, more than 500 lobbyists and executives with ties to oil, gas, and coal companies attended [COP26], either as members of trade associations or as part of countries’ official delegations.”
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc and Noor discuss what the proceedings at COP26 tell us about the seriousness of the climate crisis and the inadequacy of the methods we’re using to combat it. They also discuss Noor’s recent article about the Biden administration overseeing the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history. Dharna Noor is The Boston Globe‘s climate producer. Prior to joining the Globe‘s climate team, Noor worked as a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo‘s climate vertical, where she also co-produced a season of the podcast Drilled on the fossil fuel industry’s influence on education. Before that, she led the climate team at the Real News Network.
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Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us.
It seems that COP26 ended with a whimper. It was a great rhetorical flourish, but still no clear agreement on how to save the earth from fossil fuels. In the midst of all of that, a battle raged here in the United States over the right to drill for oil on public lands. Remember, when Biden first took office, he announced a leasing moratorium for any drilling for oil or gas on public lands. Then 13 states, led by Louisiana, took that to court, and they won. They won the right for oil drilling leases and sales on public lands. Then the Biden administration announced it will conduct those sales, while still appealing. But what does it all really mean when the oil industry is still really angry at the Biden administration, saying it’s playing games on when those oil leases will begin, and environmentalists are angry saying the Biden administration should not be selling oil leases; it’s a capitulation, and the fight should not be over.
Well, to sort out all that madness, we turn to a voice that should be familiar to many of you: Dharna Noor. She covered the environment for The Real News for many years; is now covering that same beat for The Boston Globe. And wrote an article on the fight around leasing drilling rights on public lands and seas.
Well, Dharna Noor, it’s great to see you once again. Good to have you back on The Real News.
Dharna Noor: Great to see you, too. It’s great to be here.
Marc Steiner: It’s good to have you here. And The Globe is lucky to have you, let me just say that.
Dharna Noor: Well, thank you, Marc. That means a lot coming from you.
Marc Steiner: Many of my good friends have passed through The Globe, and there you go, another one.
But this issue that you’ve been writing about, the court case that allows drilling on public lands for oil and gas, the battle that took place. To me, it seems to be really complex. I mean, let me just outline what I think is happening, and you can tell me what’s really happening. When Biden took office, he announced his leasing moratorium on drilling oil and gas on publicly held lands. And then Louisiana, leading 13 states, took this lawsuit against Biden for doing that, against the administration, and they won the right for drilling. But at the same time, it seems that oil is still angry at Biden because they say he’s playing games about how this is really going to play out and when it’s allowed to happen. It seems like the Interior Department is acquiescing and selling; at the same time they’re counter-suing to stop the drilling from taking place. So, I mean, parse out what’s really happening here. What’s the reality amidst this complexity?
Dharna Noor: Yeah, you’re totally right that it’s a pretty complex issue. And part of the reason is because oil and gas are not just like any other commodity. They’re kind of like the building blocks of most of global society, unfortunately, or fortunately. I think definitely unfortunately, for climate reasons.
Marc Steiner: Yes. Right.
Dharna Noor: So, there’s some kind of disagreement about what exactly this lawsuit meant. So just to back up a little bit, as you mentioned, the Biden administration came into office, came in hot, said that they were going to basically ban, or rather put a moratorium on, a temporary ban, rather, on new oil and gas drilling only on public lands. When Louisiana and 12 other Republican-led attorneys general pushed back against this and sued the Biden administration in court over this, they were successful. A federal judge did rule that the administration did not have the authority to instate this kind of moratorium. But there’s some confusion, I think, about what that means.
So, I spoke to a couple of experts from, you know, an attorney from Earth Justice, a couple others, who are sort of saying by actually opening up new offshore ocean leases, essentially, the Biden administration is going too far. This judge did sort of say, “You don’t have the authority to issue a blanket moratorium,” but these lawyers are kind of saying, “Well, you do still have all the discretion you had before. The Department of Interior does have the ability to come out and say, ‘We cannot issue these particular leases because of ecological problems that could result from them. The Interior does also have a responsibility to protect the climate and wellbeing and environmental wellbeing of the United States.'”
So, essentially, I think that what we’re finding is that many are pretty frustrated, saying that if the Biden administration had just had the courage to stick to what it wanted to do, then maybe we would’ve seen a pretty different result. Obviously that is not what happened, and we saw the second week of November, I guess it was, that the Biden administration held the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale of US history.
Marc Steiner: A couple of things with this, but let me just start with something that you alluded to in your article, and other people have, as well. So, these leases were sold. It could take years for them to be developed. And if that’s the case, A, it could mean a disaster long-term if we’re continuing to do oil years out the way we’re doing, that you wrote about. On the other hand, people are saying this gives more room for the Biden administration and Haaland at Interior to fight back legally, to say no. I mean, how do you read that?
Dharna Noor: I think it depends. The thing about all of these sort of departments, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Department of Interior, more generally, is that a lot of it is about discretion. So while many on the left and environmentalists broadly are saying that the Department of Interior and the administration should have used its discretion to find a way, essentially, to not open up these new leases, that’s not, clearly, what the Biden administration did. The other thing that I guess I want to point out that’s related to what you’re bringing up here is that just because these leases are bought, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be developed right away. And I would add that it also doesn’t mean that they’re going to be developed for drilling at all.
We saw at the end of the Trump administration, that he opened up a huge swath of the Arctic, an Arctic refuge for drilling, and by and large, a lot of energy companies were saying, “We’ve already found that it was a really bad idea for our investments to drill anymore in the Arctic. Activists get mad at us. We don’t want any more lawsuits.” And so that was kind of a flop, that lease sale was kind of a flop. Now it’s coming out a little bit later that it’s possible that Exxon, who is the biggest bidder in the big lease sale that the Biden administration held, isn’t actually planning on using these new leases that it bought up to extract new oil and gas, but rather that it’s actually going to try to store CO2 underground there.
So it’s possible, I guess, that this lease sale will not only amount to drilling, but could also amount to ,sort of, other environmental projects that could have a pretty huge toll, but maybe one that we don’t understand quite yet.
Marc Steiner: So what’s your analysis, then, of what this says about where the administration is, and the Democrats are, when it comes to these kind of environmental policies? Because you see Biden acquiescing on one end, you have the Interior Department… I read this morning early that the Interior put out a document, and part of it said, and I’ll just read this: “Federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing programs are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions and growing climate and community impacts,” And then went on to say, “… if the current programs fail to adequately incorporate consideration of climate impacts into leasing decisions or reflect the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.” And their push back saying, it looks like they’re going to file a suit to stop them. That’s on one hand. On the other, it’s what you’ve written about, which is the incredibly hard impact it would have on the environment if it went through. So what do you think is really going on here? What is the game being played?
Dharna Noor: Yeah, I love the way that this question is framed, because there totally is a huge disparity between what we’re seeing and what we’re getting. And I think part of the reason why is because the Biden administration knows that if you care about climate change, if this is an important issue to you, and it should be to all of us, because I personally am very interested in surviving, but I digress. I think that they know that anything that they do right now, any step they take in the right direction, is going to be welcome to many people who are so frustrated after the Trump administration. So, for instance, when you mentioned the Department of Interior says that there has not been adequate consideration of climate impacts in previous oil and gas analyses of new leases, I mean, yeah, it’s true, there hasn’t been.
In fact, under the Trump administration, there was a review done of these particular oil and gas leases, and it didn’t factor in the climate at all. It, shockingly, said, “Oh, all of these new oil and gas leases will have no impact on carbon emissions, essentially.” Which is, I mean, we all know that that’s bullshit. They know that it’s bullshit. But compared to that, yeah, this looks great. Oh yeah, of course, we opened up a whole bunch of new oil leases and that’s bad and everything, but at least we’re acknowledging the impact this could have on the climate. And I think what we’re seeing is sort of across the board, yeah, the Biden administration is, especially on rhetoric and especially on building out new things, new electric vehicles, new solar, wind, things like this. There’s lots and lots of room for new rhetoric and for new projects. But what we’re not seeing is this rapid wind down of the older, dirty industries that we need.
Marc Steiner: And in some ways this is, I mean, directly connected to what happened at the climate summit. Or what, I should say, what did not happen at the climate summit.
Dharna Noor: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I think there, too, we’ve seen a lot of–again, historic action can be historic. It can be better than anything we’ve ever had before, and it can still utterly fail to secure us a livable future, so to speak. And so there, too, I think, we saw the Biden administration make lots and lots of new pledges. We saw lots of world leaders make lots of new pledges. The problem is, will those pledges actually amount to plans? Will they stick to them? And, also, are those actually going to be sufficient to protect us from planetary warming? I think the answer is pretty clearly no.
Marc Steiner: Right. That’s why I often, instead of using the words historic in these situations, I often use the word ‘hysteric’ instead.
Dharna Noor: It’s true.
Marc Steiner: But you know, to just set what this could mean if this actually goes through, if the oil and gas companies get their way in the coming years, and the Biden administration does not stand up and fight, even though it appears they may be standing up to fight, that’s what we got to see. You wrote that these new leases will drill 1.1 billion barrels of oil, 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And it really blows my mind, and people should hear this, is that you wrote that the result would be more than 516 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases, which is 112 million cars or 130 coal-fired power plants operating in a year. That’s pretty significant, giving that, it’s significant.
Dharna Noor: I mean, it’s totally significant. I will say also that that is–I saw two estimates, and that’s the more conservative of the two. There was another estimate. The Center for American Progress did their own analysis, and they found that it would be the equivalent of even more coal-fired power plants; I think something like operating half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants for a year. So certainly, the impact, if this turns into new drilling, actually would be massive. The thing, I guess though, is again, not because these leases were bought–and they were. The leases were bought up; the biggest victor of the day was Exxon. If they’re drilled, that will be the climate impact. If they’re not drilled, there could be a whole other kind of climate impact.
We’ve seen a lot, I think, at the climate summit in Glasgow and more broadly from corporations, we’ve seen a lot of focus on this new technology that’s being promoted called carbon capture and storage where, essentially, you can emit all the carbon that you want to, but what you do is you use these giant machines basically to suck up all of those carbon emissions, and then you store them underground where they do not warm the planet, in theory. In practice, obviously, we have no evidence that this works at scale. And also, obviously, it does nothing about the local impacts of extraction, pollution, whatever. The problem is that there’s some evidence now, and there’s been some new reporting in the Verge specifically, that these new leases are not actually intended to be drilled at all, that Exxon actually plans to repurpose old oil and gas wells for carbon storage, which means maybe these won’t all be new drilling sites, but they could be another way of essentially justifying this continued fossil fuel extraction.
If this is a little bit too much in the weeds, all you need to know is that the two options are either you drill oil from these new wells, or you use them to store the carbon from other oil and gas wells. Either way, we’re talking about more oil and gas, and that is bad.
Marc Steiner: And I think, two things here as we close out, one is that I think most people don’t realize, and you can talk a bit about this, that drilling on public land is really a very small portion of where the oil and gas actually is extracted from, in terms of private ownership of the lands, where most of it comes from. I think that’s an important point to make.
Dharna Noor: Yeah, it’s totally true. And we in the United States of America love our private ownership and our privately owned land. I think it was Branko Marcetic at Jacobin, who’s done some really great climate reporting, did an analysis a few months back on how essentially toothless a ban on drilling on public lands would be. Because, as you’re saying, so much more drilling actually happens on privately owned land, which is part of the reason that it’s so frustrating that the Biden administration won’t even stand up for this small part of drilling that they promised to halt. Not even a permanent ban. Not even a permanent ban on public oil and gas leases, just a temporary one. And only on public lands, which, as you’re saying, is not the majority of drilling.
And despite that, we didn’t even see very much of a fight coming from them when it came to this particular oil and gas lease sale. So I think just to, again, to bring it back around, it comes back to the idea of making big and yet insufficient promises, and then not even keeping those. We really don’t have a lot of time for these kinds of half measures. We’re closing in on a level of planetary warming that will be totally catastrophic.
Marc Steiner: So I’m very curious to see what you will now be looking for in all of this, as you follow this. What are you going to be probing? What should we be looking for?
Dharna Noor: Yeah. In terms of these gas leases, I think that it’ll be really interesting to see how oil companies use them. More generally, I mean, I think it’s interesting to see how lots and lots of companies are finding that oil and gas are not even really good investments and to see whether or not we see more public subsidies for them, more investment in them, anyway, will be really interesting. And I think probably devastating, but [inaudible].
Marc Steiner: So I really look forward to your reporting and having many more conversations, and congratulations on your new position at The Globe, The Boston Globe, and look forward to seeing what you work on and how many more conversations we can set up. Dharna, thank you so much for your time.
Dharna Noor: Thank you so much.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at email@example.com, and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.