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Fire boats battle a fire at the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

Fire boats battle a fire at the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

Groups Move to Uncover Why Biden Held Huge Drilling Sale That DOJ Said Was Not Required

"The Biden administration's official position is that they were forced to conduct this sale by the court," said one activist. "But we've done our homework and we know that is not true."

Kenny Stancil

When the Biden administration first announced in August that it would soon hold a massive auction of oil and gas drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico, officials told angry critics that they had no choice but to proceed with the historic—and ecologically catastrophic—sale because of a ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge.

"We don't know... why the administration went ahead with this sale."

Prior to that, however, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) argued—in a memo shared Monday by The Guardian—that the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) was not required to sell new leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters despite a court decision challenging the implementation of President Joe Biden's moratorium.

Environmental lawyers had long made the same case. Now equipped with evidence that Biden ignored the DOJ's legal advice, a coalition of progressive groups—Food & Water Watch, Earth Uprising International, One Up Action, and Action Center on Race and the Economy—has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records related to the White House's decision to commence Lease Sale 257, which saw more than 80 million acres of federal waters offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas companies.

According to The Guardian, "The auction, held on November 17, ended up netting the government $191.6 million from companies such as Exxon, Chevron, and BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. A total of 308 tracts of the gulf's seabed were sold off, covering 1.7 million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware."

Thomas Meyer, national organizing manager at Food & Water Watch, said Monday in a statement that "we know this action has already disillusioned many Democratic voters who were counting on serious climate action from the Biden administration."

"What we don't know," said Meyer, "is why the administration went ahead with this sale without the required environmental review when it clearly knew it wasn't compelled to do so."

The FOIA request was submitted to the DOI and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in an effort to obtain "any and all communications related to the lease sale" between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, DOI and BOEM officials, White House officials including Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy David Hayes, members of Congress and their staff, and the fossil fuel industry.

In the memorandum of opposition filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana on August 24, U.S. government lawyers wrote that while Judge Terry A. Doughty's June 15 order "enjoins and restrains Interior from implementing the pause, it does not compel Interior to take the actions specified by plaintiffs, let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs' contempt motion."

Doughty's preliminary injunction came in response to a lawsuit filed in March by a group of Republican attorneys general opposed to Biden's January executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing. The president's pause of the federal leasing program was meant to give his administration 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."

Although the Biden administration has "acknowledged that it has many other legal mechanisms to prohibit new oil and gas leasing aside from" the disputed moratorium, Food & Water Watch explained Monday, it "quickly backed down" following the federal court's ruling, "claiming that its hands were tied."

According to the DOJ's August 24 memo, federal law requires the DOI to take additional steps before issuing new drilling permits, and "the court's order does not compel the agency to act in contravention of these other authorities."

Nevertheless, the DOI announced just days later that it would proceed with Lease Sale 257 even though doing so would, according to Food & Water Watch, violate the National Environmental Protection Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, both of which "authorize the Interior Secretary to only move forward with lease sales that are in accordance with environmental safeguards and in a manner that will not cause harm to life or the environment."

The exposure of White House's lie about its legal obligation to conduct the largest-ever offshore drilling auction in the nation's history—which was held just days after Biden declared at the COP26 climate summit that the U.S. is committed to decarbonization—confirms what activists and legal experts pointed out months ago: the Biden administration cannot blame its decision to detonate a "massive carbon bomb" in the Gulf of Mexico on anyone other than itself.

"If the court did not compel the administration to sell our public waters to the very companies responsible for the climate crisis... then what did?"

Lease Sale 257—which the Biden administration pushed forward despite scientists' repeated warnings that averting catastrophic levels of heating requires halting new fossil fuel projects—"will deepen the climate crisis and completely undermine the country's credibility as a global climate leader," said Meyer.

"Moreover, allowing new oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters constitutes a blatant disregard for Biden's repeated campaign pledges to halt this foolish activity," he added.

A recent analysis by Public Citizen revealed that the Biden administration has been doling out permits for drilling on public lands and waters at a faster clip than the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Three youth climate activists from Earth Uprising, Grounded, and One Up Action sent a letter to Interior Secretary Haaland on Monday urging her to "suspend and reverse Lease Sale 257," an illegal auction that benefits "some of the worst climate and human rights violators of our time."

"There was no requirement or rush to fast-track approval of these leases, nor was the court forcing you to conduct any specific size lease sale at any given time," the trio wrote. "It was your decision, as the Secretary of the Department of Interior, to conduct the largest lease sale to drill the Gulf of Mexico less than one week after COP26 and yours alone."

"While the U.S. District Court of Western Louisiana did strike down President Biden's executive order to halt oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, you appealed this decision," they continued. "During the appeal process, you had the opportunity to request the appeals court to stay, or suspend, the order while the administration argues its case in court, yet you didn't do this."

The three climate leaders added that they were "appalled to learn that you relied on the Trump administration's grossly inadequate environmental impact analyses that outrageously claimed the sale will have no impact on the environment or climate change—despite unleashing estimated greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to building 182 new coal power plants."

"You could have revised the 2015 environmental review to include the full scope of impacts, including climate change, but instead you rubber-stamped and expanded the Trump administration's giveaway to the oil and gas industry that spells disaster for our climate," they wrote. "Why would you do that?"

"You were the last ray of hope in an administration that has so far repeatedly failed to protect us at the speed and scope required to combat the climate emergency," the trio told Haaland. "By caving so quickly to the fossil fuel industry without even putting up a fight, we are left feeling once again like we are alone in this crisis—betrayed by the very people who promised to do the right thing and defend us from the storms now breaching our shores and the toxic industries squeezing the last breath of life from our lands."

Emphasizing that "the future of all life on Earth depends on the steps you take tomorrow," the three young advocates said that "there is still hope if you act now. Please don't let us down."

Public opposition to the Gulf lease sale has been growing. More than 100,000 petition signatures have been gathered and more than 1,000 phone calls were made to the DOI last week alone, according to Food & Water Watch.

In addition, a lawsuit filed by EarthJustice on behalf of Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Biological Diversity to compel Halaand and the DOI to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act will be heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday.

"The Biden administration's official position is that they were forced to conduct this sale by the court," Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of One Up Action, said Monday. "But we've done our homework and we know that is not true."

"If the court did not compel the administration to sell our public waters to the very companies responsible for the climate crisis and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill," he asked, "then what did?"

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