A U.S. federal court has rejected a plan to lease millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore oil drilling, saying the Biden administration did not adequately take into account the lease sale’s effect on planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, violating a bedrock environmental law.
The decision Thursday by District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington sends the proposed lease sale back to the Interior Department to decide next steps, The Associated Press reports. The judge said it was up to Interior to decide whether to go forward with the sale after a revised review, scrap it, or take other steps.
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Environmental groups hailed the decision and said the ruling gave President Joe Biden a chance to follow through on a campaign promise to stop offshore leasing in federal waters. The decision was released on the one-year anniversary of a federal leasing moratorium Biden ordered as part of his efforts to combat climate change.
The Washington Post marked that anniversary with a report that the Biden administration’s fossil drilling permits on public lands have outpaced Donald Trump’s first year occupying the White House. “The administration’s actions reveal an uncomfortable truth: Although Biden supports a shift to cleaner sources of energy, he has failed to curb fossil fuel development in the United States,” the Post wrote.
Still, “we are pleased that the court invalidated Interior’s illegal lease sale,” said Brettny Hardy, a senior attorney for Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that challenged the sale.
“This administration must meet this critical moment and honour the campaign promises President Biden made by stopping offshore leasing once and for all,” Hardy added. “We simply cannot continue to make investments in the fossil fuel industry to the peril of our communities and increasingly warming planet.”
“Today’s decision is a victorious outcome not only for the Gulf’s communities, wildlife, and ecosystem, but also for the warming planet,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director at Friends of the Earth U.S. “But the fight is not over. We will continue to hold the Biden administration accountable for making unlawful decisions that contradict its pledge to take swift, urgent action on ‘code red’ climate and environmental justice priorities.”
A spokesperson for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the agency was reviewing the decision, AP writes.
The Interior Department held the auction after attorneys general from Republican states led by Louisiana successfully challenged a suspension on sales that Biden imposed when he took office. Colossal fossils including Shell, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil offered a combined US$192 million for drilling rights on federal oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico in November.
Companies bid on 308 tracts totaling nearly 2,700 square miles (6,950 square kilometres). It marked the largest acreage and second-highest bid total since Gulf-wide bidding resumed in 2017, but was still a fraction of the territory on offer—National Public Radio says Interior originally opened bids on 80 million acres (125,000 square miles, or 325,000 square kilometres), an area twice the size of Florida.
AP says the auction was conducted even as Biden was trying to cajole other world leaders into strengthening efforts against global warming, including at COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in early November. While Biden has taken a number of actions on climate change, he has faced resistance in Congress, and his sweeping $2-trillion social and environmental spending package remains stalled. The Build Back Better plan contains $550 billion in spending and tax credits aimed at promoting clean energy.
In his 68-page ruling, Contreras said Interior failed to consider the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the lease sale, violating the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law.
“Barreling full-steam ahead with blinders on was simply not a reasonable action for BOEM to have taken here,” he said, referring to Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Environmental reviews of the lease auction—conducted under former President Donald Trump and affirmed under Biden—reached the unlikely conclusion that extracting and burning more oil and gas from the Gulf would result in fewer climate-changing emissions than leaving it.
Similar claims in two other cases, in Alaska, were rejected by federal courts after challenges from environmentalists, AP says, prompting the New York Times to declare the beginning of a new trend in court judgements.
“The ruling is one of a handful over the past year in which a court has required the government to conduct a more robust study of climate change effects before approving fossil fuel development,” the Times writes. “Analysts said that, cumulatively, the decisions would ensure that future administrations are no longer able to disregard or downplay global warming.”
“This would not have been true 10 years ago for climate analysis,” Harvard University environmental law professor Richard Lazarus told the Times. It’s “a big win” that courts are forcing government agencies to include “a very robust and holistic analysis of climate” in their decisions on whether to drill on public lands and waters, he added.
U.S. government officials recently changed their emissions modelling methods but said it was too late to use that approach for the November auction, AP reports. But their next test is coming up soon enough. Colossal fossil ConocoPhillips is continuing to press plans to extract a half-billion barrels of crude oil in Alaska over 30 years, in what Alaska Wilderness League State Director Andy Moderow is calling a “legacy setting project” for Biden.
“We’ve been clear from the beginning that it’s an unacceptable project,” said Earthjustice senior associate attorney Jeremy Lieb.
“We can’t afford to burn the oil that it will produce, and it will have really serious consequences for the people, wildlife and landscape where it will be built,” he added. “Allowing it to move forward really is not consistent with what this administration has promised on climate, environment and just general, science-based decision making.”
The National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore fossil industry, slammed the Gulf of Mexico ruling, AP writes, claiming that U.S. oil and gas production is crucial to curb inflation and strengthen U.S. national security.
“The U.S. offshore region is vital to American energy security and continued leases are essential in keeping energy flowing from this strategic national asset,” said NOIA President Erik Milito. “Uncertainty around the future of the U.S. federal offshore leasing program” would benefit Russia and other adversaries, he added.
The Biden administration has proposed another round of oil and gas sales in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and other states. Interior officials proceeded despite concluding that burning the fuels could lead to billions of dollars in future climate damages.
Emissions from burning and extracting fossil fuels from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The main body of this Associated Press report was republished by The Canadian Press on January 28, 2022.