EXPLAINER: Why is Biden halting federal oil and gas sales?

FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  Biden is taking the opposite approach of the Clinton administration to help the economy. He's bulking up on debt to fuel growth, offering aid to the poor without work requirements and pulling back from globalization. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Biden is taking the opposite approach of the Clinton administration to help the economy. He's bulking up on debt to fuel growth, offering aid to the poor without work requirements and pulling back from globalization. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

(AP) – President Joe Biden shut down oil and gas lease sales from the nation’s vast public lands and waters in his first days in office, citing worries about climate change. Now his administration has to figure out what do with the multibillion-dollar program without crushing a significant sector of the U.S. economy — and while fending off sharp criticism from congressional Republicans and the oil industry.

The leasing ban is only temporary, although officials have declined to say how long it will last. And it’s unclear how much legal authority the government has to stop drilling on about 23 million acres (9 million hectares) previously leased to energy companies.

Here are some questions hanging over Biden’s Interior Department as it launches a months-long review of the government’s petroleum sales with a virtual forum Thursday.

WHY IS BIDEN TARGETING OIL AND GAS LEASE SALES?

Burning of oil, gas and coal from government-owned lands and waters is a top source of U.S. emissions, accounting for 24% of the nation’s greenhouse gases. Oil and gas account for the biggest chunk of human-caused fossil fuel emissions from federal lands following a drilling surge under former President Donald Trump.

Emission reductions from a permanent leasing ban would be relatively small -- about 100 million tons (91 million metric tons) annually, or less than 1% of global fossil fuel emissions, according to a study by a nonprofit research group.

But environmentalists and others who want more aggressive action against climate change say a ban would nudge the economy in a new direction. Biden wants to substitute fossil fuel production and consumption with policies that promote renewable energy on public lands, such as wind and solar power.

“The federal government is a huge player here. The government has market power,” said attorney Max Sarinsky with New York University Law School’s Institute for Policy Integrity. “If you restrict the supply (of oil and gas), you alter the market and you create a better environment for more sustainable fuels.”