Biden Said Oil Companies Were Sitting on 9,000 Unused Drilling Permits. He Was Wrong.

Dem's Interior Department quietly updates data, debunks White House talking point on gas prices

A billboard outside the White House / Getty Images
February 28, 2023

In his quest to shift blame for rising gas prices, President Joe Biden accused oil companies of "sitting on nearly 9,000 unused but approved" drilling permits. Now, his own administration is acknowledging that's wrong.

Biden's Interior Department quietly updated its list of unused permits to reflect a much lower figure: 6,600, E&E News reported Monday. The department, which manages oil and gas drilling on federal land, blamed the change on a "reporting discrepancy."

The revelation comes as a blow to Biden as he attempts to defend himself from Republican critics, who argue that the Democrat is "attacking American energy" and raising gas prices by slowing fossil fuel production. Biden routinely responded to that charge by accusing oil and gas companies of "sitting on nearly 9,000 unused but approved permits for production on federal lands," a talking point that is now debunked. Under Biden, new oil leasing has slowed to its lowest level since World War II, with the Democrat only approving court-ordered or congressionally mandated leases.

In addition to Biden, top administration officials such as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and former White House press secretary Jen Psaki have used the 9,000-permit talking point to argue that the oil and gas industry has "plenty of opportunities … to drill here in the United States." The American Petroleum Institute admonished the administration for its "inaccurate and misleading numbers" and called on Biden to "support American production."

"It is time for the administration to end the finger-pointing and instead support American production with a comprehensive strategy for American energy development—one that includes a final five-year program for offshore leasing and quarterly onshore lease sales," the institute said in a statement.

The White House did not return a request for comment.

Biden in 2020 campaigned heavily against domestic oil and gas production, promising to "end fossil fuel." The Democrat went on to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and implement a moratorium on new gas leases within days of taking office. Gas prices later reached record highs—in June 2022, the average price for a gallon of gas in the United States hit $5 for the first time ever.

The Biden campaign's crusade against fossil fuels—which helped the Democrat appeal to young liberal voters—has made many U.S. oil companies wary of investing in new drilling operations given the long-term political risk, the Washington Post reported last year. Those companies—which determine their drilling plans more than a year in advance—have also faced labor shortages under Biden, with the oil industry comprising roughly 12,400 fewer workers last year than it did prior to the coronavirus pandemic.