Environmentalists call on Biden to fulfill campaign promise to end offshore and federal land oil drilling

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On Tuesday, a group of 310 environmental justice, climate change and public health advocacy organizations sent a petition to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland calling on the department to halt all sales of new leases for fossil fuel development.

“Rather than taking the bold action necessary to address the climate emergency, in November 2021, the Biden administration held the largest oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history — offering up more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to the oil industry,” the letter, signed by groups including the Sierra Club and 350.org, reads. “This decision was not only a spectacular failure of climate leadership, it was also unlawful.”

Container ships and oil platforms
Container ships and oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, Calif. (Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The petition comes in response to a pair of conflicting federal court decisions that have left President Biden’s campaign promise to end fossil fuel development on federal lands and waters in limbo.

Last June, a federal district court judge in Louisiana — siding with Republican attorneys general from Louisiana and 12 other states — ruled that the Biden administration could not implement its Jan. 27, 2021, executive order pausing new leasing for oil and gas extraction. The court issued an injunction that blocked Biden from implementing the pause, and the Department of the Interior, which manages federal lands and waters, resumed leasing.

In November, the DOI held an auction that resulted in the largest offshore lease sale ever in the Gulf of Mexico. In response, a coalition of environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club filed suit in D.C. District Court. The plaintiffs argued that the department’s environmental impact analysis violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it found that additional offshore oil drilling would actually reduce climate change. The DOI’s reasoning, which has been rejected previously by other courts, is based on the assumption that the oil produced domestically would replace oil produced by dirtier means in other countries. That is wrong, the plaintiffs argued, because it doesn’t consider the possibility that constricting domestic production could result in higher prices and less oil being ultimately sold and burned.

That the Biden administration was producing a drilling-friendly analysis, and defending it in court, rankled environmental activists who believe the DOI should be trying harder to implement its leasing pause in spite of the Louisiana ruling. “We have this promise from the campaign trail, but it’s not being implemented at all now that they’re in office,” Hallie Templeton, legal director of Friends of the Earth, told Yahoo News.

Joe Biden
President Biden at the White House on Monday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On Jan. 27, in what the New York Times described as “a major victory for environmental groups that criticized the Biden administration for holding the sale,” a federal judge voided the lease sales — worth $192 million — to Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil for the rights to drill in 1.7 million acres of the Gulf, and ordered the DOI to redo the environmental analysis.

“Judge Contreras, in the District Court here, followed in the footsteps of these previous courts,” said Brettny Hardy, lead attorney on the case for Earthjustice, which represented the environmental groups. “And just as these previous courts had found that there were serious problems with the agency’s greenhouse gas emissions modeling, and that those flaws were big errors in the agency’s decision overall.”

The environmental groups petitioning the DOI to reinstitute the halt believe that the Jan. 27 ruling paves the way to do so legally.

The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trade group that had intervened on behalf of the defense in the case, said it hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal. “We were disappointed with the ruling,” Frank Macchiarola, the group's senior vice president, told Yahoo News. “We are reviewing it and looking at our options regarding what the court did and what we can do moving forward.”

With global temperatures hurtling toward a threshold that scientists predict will result in catastrophic consequences for life on Earth, climate activists see restricting fossil fuel development as essential to protecting the planet. And extracting and transporting oil and gas have local environmental impacts as well, especially offshore, as the frequent and notorious oil spills such as the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon explosion on the Gulf Coast demonstrated. Moreover, reports have documented that the federal fossil fuel leasing programs are outdated and overly generous to the fossil fuel industry, as they charge below-market prices and do not factor in environmental costs.

Teams of firefighters cleaning the Alaskan coast
Teams of firefighters cleaning the Alaskan coast following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. (Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty Images)

In light of all that — and the fact that Congress has continually failed to pass legislation that would combat climate change through other means — putting a halt to federal fossil fuel leasing has become a key demand of the climate movement. Actually implementing that policy was going to be difficult, as decades-old laws dictate that the Interior Department must make use of America’s natural resources and the Trump administration went on a lease-selling spree before leaving office.

In January, marking the one-year anniversary of Biden’s executive order pausing new leases, the Washington Post reported that Biden is in fact outpacing his predecessor in issuing drilling permits. Permits are issued under existing leases, so technically issuing permits for drilling under leases sold by the Trump administration is not at odds with Biden’s campaign promise or executive order. However, environmental activists say the DOI could use its discretion to slow down the permitting process by implementing stricter environmental reviews of each application.

“It doesn't have to be a complete rubber stamp,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation advocacy organization, told Yahoo News in December.

And the Biden administration shows no signs of slowing down on selling new leases either. “The Interior Department plans to auction off oil and gas drilling rights on more than 200,000 acres across Western states by the end of March, followed by 1 million acres in the Cook Inlet, off the coast of Alaska,” the Post noted.

An oil pipeline
An oil pipeline stretches across the landscape outside Prudhoe Bay in North Slope Borough, Alaska. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post via Getty Images)

When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked at a briefing late last month why the administration is selling oil and gas drilling leases, she blamed the Louisiana court injunction. “A big part of that is because of court cases and legal challenges that have made it — made it impossible for us to stop many of these leases,” she said. “A court challenge is a significant barrier to implementing our intended policy.”

DOI spokesperson Melissa Schwartz reiterated that argument when asked for comment for this story. “As the Department has stated previously, to comply with the injunction imposed in the District Court of Louisiana litigation, we were compelled to proceed with Lease Sale 257 based on the previous administration’s environmental analysis and its decision to approve the lease sale,” she wrote in an email to Yahoo News, using the Gulf oil lease sale’s official government name and number.

Environmental activists say the Biden administration has the means to stop fossil fuel leasing but has lacked the political will.

“I have no idea why the administration pushed so hard and moved so quickly on this lease sale, for it to go forward,” Templeton said.

“They used the phrasing ‘Our hands are tied, we don’t want to be held in contempt of court’ because of that Louisiana injunction, which they’re appealing,” she added. “But there’s a lot of questions that have still remained unanswered. I don’t know why they didn’t ask the Louisiana court when they appealed to issue a stay on that injunction. They didn’t ask for all that they could have. And so there’s a lot of pandering to both sides, it seems like.”

Tugboats tow a semi-submersible drilling platform
Tugboats tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins in Port Aransas, Texas. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The oil and gas industry disagrees on whether federal law allows Biden to pause leasing, and on the merits of doing so. “It’s critically important for the federal government to be leasing both in the Gulf of Mexico and on shore, and so we’re going to continue to press that message both to the administration and in the courts,” Macchiarola said.

API contends that domestic oil and gas production, including on public land and water, is essential to preventing price spikes or dependence on foreign adversaries, such as Russia, that may have weaker environmental regulations. “Federal lands and waters make up around 22 percent of our oil production in the United States, around 13 percent of our natural gas production,” Macchiarola said. “We are a very well-regulated industry in the United States. We are among the best performers [in the world] with regard to emissions reductions.”

Climate change activists, however, are more concerned with the larger emissions that come from burning fossil fuels than the emissions from producing them, and therefore they prefer to limit fossil fuel production whenever possible.

In a sign that environmentalists might be making some headway within the administration, the Bureau of Land Management — a division of the DOI — announced last Thursday that it will hold an open public comment period for the Willow project, a ConocoPhillips effort to extract about 590 million barrels of oil from Alaska’s North Slope. It had been approved late in the Trump administration and was initially defended in court by the Biden administration. But the administration declined to appeal a federal court ruling from last year that ordered BLM to re-review the proposal. Climate activists praised Thursday’s announcement because it means they will have another chance to block the drilling project.

The Department of the Interior didn’t directly answer questions from Yahoo News about whether it will appeal the recent ruling voiding the Gulf drilling lease sale. “We are reviewing the U.S. District Court of D.C.’s decision regarding Lease Sale 257 concerning deficiencies in that record,” Schwartz, the DOI spokesperson, wrote.

Unused oil rigs
Unused oil rigs near Port Fourchon, La. (Lee Celano/Reuters)

Schwartz went on to broadly defend the administration’s record on protecting federal lands and waters from fossil fuel development. “Our public lands and waters must be protected for generations to come. We have documented serious deficiencies in the federal oil and gas program,” she wrote, referring to a DOI report from November that found the federal oil and gas leasing program undercharges fossil fuel companies. (Some environmental groups, including Earthjustice, slammed the report for failing to investigate the climate change impact of fossil fuel development.)

“Especially in the face of the climate crisis, we need to take the time to make significant and long overdue programmatic reforms,” Schwartz wrote. “Our work will be guided by the law, science and sound policy. That’s why the President called for a pause on leasing in his Executive Order, and why we are appealing the decision enjoining implementation of the pause.”

Schwartz also noted that the department has begun to implement other reforms, including repealing Trump-era orders “that gave special priority to fossil fuel development,” and “increasing the amount of Tribal consultation and public comment opportunities.” In September, the DOI also reversed a rule proposed under Trump that would have allowed fossil fuel companies to pay lower royalty rates, and it is currently working on regulations to strengthen offshore pipeline oversight and oil and gas safety standards.

Still, climate activists are waiting nervously to see what it will do about the recent ruling. “Our hope is that they see the writing on the wall and don’t try to continue fighting this,” Templeton said. “It would not be a good look. If the Biden administration were to appeal, it would be shattering their promise even more, if that’s possible, of no new drilling.”

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