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Federal data shows the number of approved but unused drilling permits peaked in 2021 with more than 9,000 permits.
But that data goes back only about a decade, putting an asterisk on such a sweeping claim.
Data for offshore permitting, a much smaller number of permits, shows a decrease in the number since 2006.
While Republicans argue that the United States needs to do more drilling for oil and gas to deal with rising energy prices, Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, has a different perspective on the matter.
During discussion of the transition to renewable energy in a recent primary debate, Barnes said: "This is not a light switch. This is turning the dial. And the fact is, we have more oil and gas permits than ever before right now. We need to focus on that transition to renewable energy."
Let’s dial in on that third sentence. Do we really have more oil and gas permits than ever before?
In response to a request for supporting information, the Barnes campaign shared a Yahoo News article from March reporting that oil and gas permitting in the United States has increased under President Joe Biden’s administration.
The article relies upon a data dashboard of onshore oil and gas leasing and drilling under the Biden administration from the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization focusing on the American West.
The dashboard, originally published on March 8, 2022, was updated July 21. It mostly relies on data from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue and the department’s Bureau of Land Management, which is the agency responsible for approving oil and gas drilling permits on public land.
Since Barnes said "permits" and not "leases," we will focus on the former.
For context, oil and gas companies must obtain a lease for land they want to drill on before applying for a permit. Permits usually expire after two years, but the agency can grant extensions.
We’ll start by noting the earliest available permit data tracked by the BLM is from 2010 — so that provides a very limited window for a most-ever claim like the one Barnes made. We’ll also look at the data in two ways — permits that are approved but unused, and all permits.
According to the dashboard, as of March 2022, companies held nearly 9,000 approved, but unused, drilling permits.
A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson confirmed this, saying that the number of such permits peaked at the end of fiscal year 2021 at 9,623. (The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.) That is the highest total in the last decade.
According to the BLM, the total number of approved but unused drilling permits was at 7,091 at the end of fiscal year 2020. As of May 2022, that total was at 8,920 permits.
But what about the total number of existing permits, not just those that are currently unused?
An analysis of data from the BLM’s online database shows the number of existing permits has dramatically increased since calendar year 2016, as more permits have been issued and the expiration dates of already issued permits have been extended.
Indeed, the number of existing permits also peaked in 2021 at 16,096.
Meanwhile, there are 14,427 overall permits so far in 2022, a number that could increase as the year continues.
The above data only takes into account onshore oil and gas drilling – not any offshore operations, where oil and gas are extracted from below the Outer Continental Shelf.
Offshore drilling is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is responsible for leasing, and its Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which is responsible for permitting.
An analysis of that data, which goes back to 1996, shows the number of approved permits for new wells peaked in 2006 at 381. The number of approved permits has steadily declined since then — likely a result of legislative pressure at the state and federal level to restrict offshore drilling due to environmental concerns.
So, the offshore data would have only a small impact on the overall picture.
And that picture is one where Barnes is right on the current number, and may well be right on the historic one. But the data is too limited for him to make such a sweeping claim.
During a debate, Barnes said "we have more oil and gas permits than ever before right now."
The Bureau of Land Management confirmed that the number of approved but unused onshore drilling permits reached 9,623 at the end of fiscal year 2021, the highest it’s been in the past decade.
The problem is there is no available earlier data, which would really be necessary to make such a sweeping claim. That puts an asterisk on what Barnes said, and means we’re nudging our rating down to Mostly True, which we define as: "The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information."
Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin U.S. Senate Democratic primary debate, July 17, 2022
Email exchange with Maddy McDaniel, Mandela Barnes campaign communications director, July 19, 2022
Ben Adler, U.S. oil and gas permitting has increased under Biden, data shows, March 9, 2022
Center for Western Priorities, By the numbers: Onshore oil and gas leasing and drilling under the Biden administration, accessed July 28, 2022
Center for Western Priorities, Biden Leasing Dashboard Citations & Notes, March 8, 2022
Bureau of Land Management, Applications for permits to drill, accessed July 28, 2022
Email exchange with spokesperson from U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, Aug/ 1, 2022
Bureau of Land Management, Application for Permit to Drill Status Report: 10/1/2021 to 5/31/2022, accessed Aug. 1, 2022
Bureau of Land Management, Application for Permit to Drill Status Report: 10/1/2020 to 9/30/2021, accessed Aug. 1, 2022
Bureau of Land Management, Application for Permit to Drill Status Report: Fiscal Year 2020, accessed Aug. 1, 2022
Bureau of Land Management, Approved APDs Report - Federal, accessed July 28, 2022
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Conventional Offshore Energy Approval Process, accessed July 29, 2022
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, APD/AST/ABP Online Query, accessed Aug. 1, 2022
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