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The sun sets over container ships and oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, California on January 12, 2021. (Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The sun sets over container ships and oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, California on January 12, 2021. (Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

'Stop Making Things Worse': Biden Denounced for Plan to Resume Oil and Gas Leasing

"More oil and gas leasing is insane policy in light of the climate crisis," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil

Progressive advocates are rebuking the Biden administration after it said this week that federal officials will soon resume selling new leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters.

"While the administration's appeal is pending, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland should use her discretion under the law to authorize the least amount of leasing required to comply with the court's order."
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen

President Joe Biden's Tuesday announcement (pdf) came in response to a June court ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge who sided with a group of Republican attorneys general that sued the Biden administration in March over its temporary pause on new leases for onshore and offshore fossil fuel extraction on federal property.

Despite Biden's 2020 campaign promise to ban new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, the Department of Interior plans to restart the leasing process as early as next Tuesday, putting the administration on track to hold a lease auction for the Gulf of Mexico as soon as October and onshore auctions early next year.

Public Citizen president Robert Weissman called the Biden administration's disclosure "distressing news" in a statement released Wednesday.

"The first, easiest steps to address the climate crisis are to stop making things worse," said Weissman. "More oil and gas leasing is insane policy in light of the climate crisis."

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, roughly 25% of the nation's total carbon emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. Ramping up drilling defies evidence-based recommendations made by the International Energy Agency and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned in recent reports that preventing catastrophic levels of global warming requires halting new fossil fuel projects.

Weissman acknowledged that "the administration's hands are somewhat tied by a flawed district court ruling" prohibiting its temporary moratorium on new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters.

Reuters reported:

The filing to a Louisiana federal district court on Tuesday was in response to a motion by the state of Louisiana and 12 other states from earlier this month that sought to compel Interior to restart the leasing program and to show why it should not be held in contempt for failing to comply with the order issued weeks earlier.

Nevertheless, Weissman continued, the Interior Department "should do more to prevent the damage that new leasing will inflict."

"Among other measures," he said, "the Biden administration should force dirty energy companies to clean up the mess they have created on public lands and pay higher royalties for the privilege of extracting resources from public lands."

Earlier this month, the Interior Department announced that it is challenging the district court's decision, but "federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing will continue" as the process unfolds.

Biden's January executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing on federal property was meant to give administration officials time to conduct a comprehensive review of the "potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters," which the Interior Department said is ongoing.

The moratorium did not affect existing leases, something the Trump administration sold in droves. The Biden administration, which in March declined to renew the Interior Department's policies limiting the provision of drilling permits, has so far approved fossil fuel drilling permits on federal and tribal property at a faster rate than its two immediate predecessors.

While fossil fuel industry groups celebrated Biden's decision to comply with the district court's order to restart the federal oil and gas leasing program, environmental groups criticized the administration for being excessively deferential and argued that the Interior Department still has the authority to limit the provision of new leases.

"The Biden administration doesn't necessarily have to keep incessantly offering land for sale to polluters without pauses or changing up the oil and gas leasing program," journalist Molly Taft wrote on Wednesday.

Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy told Taft that the federal judge's injunction "didn't say the Interior Department needed to start leasing again. What it said was you can't implement the pause Biden called for in his executive order."

"It didn't eliminate any of the Interior Department's regular discretion over whether it should lease, and how much to lease," said Hardy. "There's a number of federal laws that regulate that process and give Interior the power to cancel a lease sale if it determines that's necessary. There's a lot of discretion in the law."

According to Taft:

Hardy said there are a number of different, perfectly legal options the agency could exercise to put off the lease sales this year, which were initially scheduled by the Trump administration. "It sounds like they're going beyond what the court is requiring," Hardy said of the documents the administration filed Tuesday. She added she didn't have any direct insight as to why they were acting this way, but said a colleague suggested that "disinformation and politics is driving their decision."

Weissman, for his part, stressed that "while the administration's appeal is pending, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland should use her discretion under the law to authorize the least amount of leasing required to comply with the court's order."


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