A drilling field in California

Pump jacks are seen at the Belridge Oil Field and hydraulic fracking site in Kern County, California. (Photo: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Groups Sue Biden Admin for Threatening 'Climate-Imperiled' Wildlife With Drilling Permits

One campaigner said the "cursory approval of more than 3,500 drilling permits contradicts President Biden's pledges to address the terrifying threat of climate change."

Citing a trio of federal laws, environmental organizations sued the Biden administration on Wednesday for further jeopardizing "climate-imperiled species" by issuing more than 3,500 oil and gas drilling permits on public lands in New Mexico and Wyoming.

"While President Biden has acknowledged the urgency of this crisis, it is time for action to align with rhetoric."

"The Biden administration is literally drilling away the climate," declared Jeremy Nichols, director of the Climate and Energy Program at WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups behind the new suit, filed in a federal court in Washington, D.C.

U.S. President Joe Biden has come under fire from campaigners for not only failing to deliver on climate-related campaign pledges--including a vow to end new federal fossil fuel leasing--but also outpacing his predecessor for permit approvals during his first year in office.

"Today's lawsuit is about enforcing the reality that more oil and gas extraction only stands to fuel the climate crisis, contrary to the promises of President Biden," Nichols said Wednesday.

The lawsuit targets Biden's Interior Department and an agency within it--the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)--as well as the leaders of each, arguing that the administration's drilling permit approvals violate the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

"Fossil fuels are driving the extinction crisis, and the Bureau of Land Management is making things worse by failing to protect these imperiled species," asserted Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, another group behind the case.

"The agency's cursory approval of more than 3,500 drilling permits contradicts President Biden's pledges to address the terrifying threat of climate change," said Hartl. "Every new well takes polar bears and many other species one step closer to extinction."

Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center, who filed the suit Wednesday, highlighted the disconnect between the need for climate action now and the administration's decisions.

"The climate crisis is happening now, causing harms that are disproportionately felt by environmental justice communities, and it requires immediate action in order to maintain a livable planet," Tisdel said, noting the federal oil and gas program's planet-heating emissions.

"While President Biden has acknowledged the urgency of this crisis, it is time for action to align with rhetoric," the attorney continued. "The Bureau of Land Management has admitted that continued oil and gas exploitation is a significant cause of the climate crisis, yet the agency continues to recklessly issue thousands of new oil and gas drilling permits, violating its duty to prevent unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands."

The suit specifically references a 2020 BLM report that estimates "emissions from coal, oil, and gas development that is occurring, and is projected to occur," on public lands.

The case comes as scientists highlight the connections between the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, with one paper published earlier this month in the journal BioScience warning that "as the window to avoid far-reaching and irreversible impacts on people and nature rapidly closes, the current actions to address these global challenges are insufficient."

The New York Timesreported Wednesday that the case, which uses a "novel" legal argument involving federal law designed to protect endangered wildlife, "faces long odds, but experts called it an ambitious effort that could force the government to rethink how it evaluates the potential for climate harm from each new drilling permit."

As the newspaper explained:

The suit turns on invalidating decisions that rely on a 2008 legal opinion written by David Bernhardt, who was chief counsel at the Department of Interior under President George W. Bush and would later run the agency in the Trump administration. Mr. Bernhardt declared that the Interior Department does not have an obligation to study the impact on an endangered plant or animal from a proposed action that would add carbon admissions to the atmosphere.

"Science cannot say that a tiny incremental global temperature rise that might be produced by an action under consideration would manifest itself in the location of a listed species or its habitat," Mr. Bernhardt wrote at the time.

That position still largely holds true, scientists and environmentalists said. But they also said it's an impossible standard--like requiring knowledge of which packet of cigarettes triggered a smoker's lung cancer.

"It's totally the wrong way to think about it," University of Arizona professor John J. Wiens told the Times. "More emissions, more warming puts species at risk... It doesn't matter if we don't know that this specific well in Wyoming led to an extinction. We know what the general pattern is."

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