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A gas drilling rig sits in an area of southeastern Utah managed by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo: Richer Images/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

A gas drilling rig sits in an area of southeastern Utah managed by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo: Richer Images/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

Green Groups Formally Object to Biden's Plan for Fossil Fuel Leasing on Public Lands

"The government is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our future," warned one coalition member.

Kenny Stancil

Nearly 10 environmental groups on Friday filed formal objections to the Biden administration's plan to open up 734,000 acres of public lands to fossil fuel extraction—a decision that critics have called "insane policy in light of the climate crisis" and a clear violation of President Joe Biden's 2020 campaign promise to ban federal sales of new oil and gas leases.

"We can't confront the climate crisis if we can't keep fossil fuels in the ground."

Amid this summer's wave of extreme weather disasters, Biden described the climate emergency as a "code red" that "poses an existential threat to our lives," but that hasn't stopped his administration from proposing new oil and gas leasing on public lands.

Biden's plan could unleash up to 246 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution—equivalent to the annual emissions of 62 coal-fired power plants—according to the groups responsible for Friday's filing with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The groups joined in opposition to the leasing plans are: the Western Environmental Law Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance, the Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians.

Public lands, the coalition argues, are "off limits for leasing because of the government's ongoing failure under multiple laws to assess and avoid harm from the federal fossil fuel program's climate pollution. That includes harm to land, water, communities, and endangered species."

"The government is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our future," Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said Friday in a statement.

"The science is clear: In order to maintain an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5ºC, approximately 60% of global oil and gas must be left in the ground," Hornbein continued. "I think we can all agree that a 50% chance of success isn't great odds when it comes to our planet's ability to support life, yet the government is doubling down on fossil fuel extraction precisely when it should be hitting the brakes."

Hornbein added that "the announcement of these sales is particularly bewildering in light of President Biden's executive actions on climate and the Bureau of Land Management's clear legal discretion when it comes to leasing."

In August, the U.S. Interior Department took steps to resurrect its oil and gas leasing program. That move 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 lease sales for public lands and waters.

Biden's January executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing 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."

Progressive critics have argued that while the federal judge's injunction challenges the implementation of Biden's moratorium, it does not require the Interior Department to resume oil and gas leasing. Biden administration officials, experts say, still have the regulatory authority to limit new lease sales.

"It's appalling that the Interior Department plans to allow more climate-destroying oil and gas extraction when it has broad legal authority not to lease these public lands," Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Friday.

"It's appalling that the Interior Department plans to allow more climate-destroying oil and gas extraction when it has broad legal authority not to lease these public lands."

"Judges in several recent court decisions have agreed that it's illegal to allow any new leasing without looking at the potential harm to the climate, wildlife habitat, and groundwater," added Saul. "Any analysis of the dangers of fracking and drilling will make undeniably clear that the federal fossil fuel program needs to end now."

The moratorium the White House enacted in January 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 public lands and waters at a faster rate than its two immediate predecessors.

According to the coalition, the Biden administration "has approved more than 2,800 new permits to drill. That rate of 351 per month outpaces the Trump administration's 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018-2020."

Roughly 25% of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Ramping up drilling defies 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.

"We can't confront the climate crisis if we can't keep fossil fuels in the ground," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director. "Selling more public lands for fracking is nothing short of a massively unjust broken promise by President Biden to put climate first."

In April, more than 200 groups filed comments with the administration calling for a formal climate review of federal fossil fuel leasing under the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Lands Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and other laws.

"Federal lands and minerals," noted Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project, "are supposed to be managed in trust for the benefit of the public. Addressing the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are very clearly top public priorities, and keeping federal lands and mineral deposits off the oil and gas auction block is a key step in solving both problems."


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