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Manchin, Republican lawmakers grill Interior chief over oil and gas drilling plans amid high prices

(CNN) Interior Sec. Deb Haaland squared off with lawmakers on Thursday at a contentious Senate hearing that addressed high gas prices, oil and gas drilling and delays in the department's plan to hold more drilling lease sales.

Haaland told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that her agency plans to release a proposal for its next five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing by the end of June -- a timeline that would likely lead to a gap between the current plan and a new one.

Sen. Joe Manchin and Republicans on the committee expressed concern that the Department of Interior appeared to be delaying holding more oil and gas lease sales just as gasoline prices are surging in the US.

"The President says he wants his administration to encourage more American energy," said Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming. "Instead your department, Madam Secretary, stalls, postpones and kills oil and natural gas lease sales. Your department is undermining domestic energy production, not expediting it."

Energy experts have told CNN that high gas prices cannot be solved by drilling more oil in the US.

Haaland told the committee the department has no deadline to start leasing under a new program, which will likely lead to a gap between the current program and the new one, during which the federal government cannot hold offshore oil and gas lease sales.

Both she and Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told lawmakers that the process of drafting a five-year plan is taking longer as the department tries to be "deliberate."

"It is appropriate for us to take a step, be deliberate as we think about future potential leasing described in the 5-year program," Beaudreau told Manchin, the committee's chair. "By the end of June, we'll take step number two in a three-step process. No decisions about leasing will be made until step number three."

That answer didn't appear to satisfy Manchin, the senator from West Virginia who is Democrats' swing vote on energy and climate legislation.

Manchin told Interior officials they were taking "a lot longer than the deadline" to get their new five-year plan done.

"We're getting this at the last possible day, the last possible minute, knowing that there's other steps to go through," Manchin said. "The timing is not right that you've taken as long as you possibly could."

Haaland said even after the program proposal comes out by June 30, it will take another 150 days to complete public comment and environmental review before lease sales can be held.

"I don't think there is an actual deadline" to begin new offshore leasing, she told Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.

"That's the concern all of us have, actually that there's no deadline," Lankford responded. "That the proposal to talk about it is coming on the date it should be done, and that this is going to stretch out for the next 2-3 years of talking about it. We're trying to figure out when's the deadline to actually start leasing."

The Biden administration announced last week it would cancel three upcoming offshore oil and gas leases -- two in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Alaska -- over a lack of industry interest and legal delays.

The cancellation of the previously planned Cook Inlet sale in Alaska, as well as the lease sales in the Gulf, ensures that millions of acres of offshore waters will not be developed for oil and gas -- a significant victory for climate advocates. While the administration announced it would restart a dramatically smaller area of onshore oil and gas leases in April, the offshore cancellations threw the future of the federal government's offshore oil and gas leasing this year into doubt.

The move rankled Republicans and Manchin, who expressed his displeasure at Thursday's hearing.

"I'm sorry to say it has become crystal clear that the 'pause' is in fact a 'ban,'" Manchin said of the department's initial temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing, which has since ended.