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President Biden faces pressure to end fossil fuel development to fight climate change

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Concern about the climate crisis has the Biden administration under intense pressure to end fossil fuel development on federal land in the West. But the influential industry expects new drilling opportunities. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that the president's new public lands chief has to try to find a balance.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: There's a scene in the HBO series "White Lotus" where the Bureau of Land Management, long seen as a back burner federal agency, hits pop culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")

JENNIFER COOLIDGE: (As Tanya McQuoid) I want to know, how did you get involved with the BLM? I just think that's so interesting.

SIEGLER: Actress Jennifer Coolidge mistakes a middle-aged white man she's having a fling with as a Black Lives Matter activist. He's actually an old cop who now works for the BLM in rural Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")

COOLIDGE: (As Tanya McQuoid) Yeah, you said BLM.

JON GRIES: (As Greg, laughter) Yeah, that's the Bureau of Land Management. I have, like, 300 rangers across 10 states that report to me.

TRACY STONE-MANNING: (Laughter) I have seen "White Lotus."

SIEGLER: But for the other BLM's new director, a beaming Tracy Stone-Manning, that scene shows that her agency is becoming a lot more known outside just the American West, especially now as the energy development she's about to regulate puts her on the front lines of the Biden administration's climate agenda.

STONE-MANNING: The energy side of that is transitioning to renewables. Our agency is right in the middle of that of helping to drive that transition.

SIEGLER: Inside this cavernous Department of Interior building in Washington, Stone-Manning is in the process of moving the agency's senior leaders back from Grand Junction, where Jennifer Coolidge's flame lives in that HBO show and where the Trump administration had actually relocated its headquarters. That office in the middle of Colorado's massive oil and gas fields had been symbolic. Now Stone-Manning has other plans.

STONE-MANNING: Yeah, we're charging ahead with a clean energy future because we have to. It's our responsibility to the future. And I think the way that you walk that line is to be transparent and clear about what you're doing.

SIEGLER: With climate change accelerating, the federal government is trying to fast-track 25 new gigawatts of renewable development on public land by 2025. That'll mean a lot of new studies and permitting but also a big change for some local economies that are based on fossil fuel extraction.

STONE-MANNING: And that requires really a thoughtful approach that does not leave communities behind, that does not leave states behind but that also honors and does the right thing for future generations.

SIEGLER: That transition is already rocky. When the Biden administration tried to put a freeze on all new oil and gas leases on public land, a federal judge struck it down. The administration is appealing, but this February, the bureau is set to open up 300,000 more acres to oil and gas drilling.

NATASHA LEGER: I see the administration backpedaling on all of its climate promises.

SIEGLER: Natasha Leger runs Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia, Colo. Groups like hers want to ban all drilling on federal land. The U.S. government has estimated that fossil fuel development on that land accounts for roughly a quarter of all U.S. emissions.

LEGER: By allowing these leases to move forward, the administration is locking in oil and gas development for the next 10 to 30 years.

SIEGLER: But the industry warns stopping all of that would cost local economies tens of billions of dollars, and the bureau is required by law to manage public land for multiple uses. Tracy Stone-Manning says the Biden administration will now factor in the carbon costs to any new proposed drilling, and any new leases will only be allowed next to existing development.

STONE-MANNING: Business people are incredibly - the good ones are very good at what they do, and they're going to continue to make energy. What that energy looks like is an open question.

SIEGLER: Before arriving at the BLM, Stone-Manning developed a reputation for compromising with industry on public lands fights. In a country this polarized, she knows that this one may be the biggest challenge of her career. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.