Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) speaks in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 2022.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) speaks in Washington, D.C. on July 18, 2022. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Take Back the Court Action Fund)

Congressional Climate Champions to Biden: 'No New Fossil Fuel Leases, Not Now, Not Ever'

"Nothing less than a livable planet is on the line," said Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

As the climate crisis continued to wreak deadly havoc across the globe on Tuesday, progressive stalwarts Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal led a group of 27 House Democrats in urging the Biden administration to immediately end new fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters and to begin phasing out oil and gas production on federally owned property.

"Fighting climate change means no new fossil fuel leases, not now, not ever."

"New fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters is incompatible with meeting international commitments to limit global warming to 1.5oC," the lawmakers wrote in a letter addressed to President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

"While the oil and gas industry is cynically exploiting the crisis in Ukraine to demand even more access to public lands, turning even more lands over for drilling will not offer relief at the pump or aid to the people of Ukraine and other countries caught in conflicts tied to fossil fuels," the letter continues. "Avoiding the most catastrophic climate impacts requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects, including ending all new leasing on public lands."

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that roughly 25% of the nation's total carbon emissions and 7% of its overall methane emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters, which is why the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) earlier this year included a ban on new federal oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore in its list of executive actions the Biden administration could take to improve the lives of working people and preserve a habitable planet.

Last month's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court's reactionary majority to weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate power plant emissions using rulemaking authorities delegated to it by lawmakers under the Clean Air Act, and right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's (W.Va.) latest move to torpedo renewable energy spending in his party's floundering reconciliation package, have only increased the relevance of the CPC's executive action agenda, first released in March.

With much of the Northern Hemisphere currently battling dangerously high temperatures, Biden is reportedly mulling soon declaring a climate emergency, a move that proponents say would enhance his administration's ability to take unilateral climate action unencumbered by opposition from Manchin--Congress' leading recipient of fossil fuel industry cash this campaign cycle and a long-time coal profiteer--and his GOP allies.

"In the face of intensifying climate change and the extremist Supreme Court's ongoing campaign to hand the country over to corporate polluters, we need immediate, decisive, and aggressive climate leadership from the White House," Tlaib (Mich.) said in a statement Tuesday.

"President Biden and Secretary Haaland still have the tools to uphold their commitments to monumental climate action, and that can start right now with banning new fossil fuel leasing, invalidating recent sales, canceling upcoming sales, and issuing a five-year plan with no new offshore leases," said Tlaib. "Nothing less than a livable planet is on the line, and now is the time to deliver on our promises."

The United States, said Jayapal (Wash.), "cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels when our planet is already experiencing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, from wildfires to hurricanes and floods."

More than 1,100 heat-related deaths have been reported this month in Portugal and Spain alone, and a new study found that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are linked to over $1.8 trillion in global economic damage.

While applauding Biden's campaign pledges to ban new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters and to require federal permitting decisions to weigh the social costs of additional planet-heating pollution, the lawmakers wrote that his administration's actions have run roughshod over those promises.

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) resumed lease sales in several Western states, opening up more than 140,000 acres of public land to fossil fuel production--a move that was immediately challenged by a pair of lawsuits.

Both lawsuits contend that the Biden administration's June lease auctions violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws by locking in an enormous amount of greenhouse gas pollution while failing to address how more drilling would negatively affect public health, local ecosystems, and the planet writ large.

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"In addition, many of the leases sold in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota in June fall under Fort Laramie treaty territory, where Indigenous people retain rights to hunt, fish, and gather," Tuesday's letter states. "The United States has a trust responsibility and is required under law to consult with tribes, but your administration did not do the due diligence to ensure this occurred."

The DOI has argued that it was required to restart lease auctions because of a preliminary injunction issued last June by U.S. Judge Terry A. Doughty, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who ruled in favor of a group of fossil fuel-funded Republican attorneys general that sued Biden for suspending new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters shortly after taking office.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), however, wrote last August that while Doughty's decision blocks the Biden administration from enforcing its moratorium, it does not compel BLM to hold new lease sales.

"Our constituents are counting on you to do everything in your power to stop ballooning oil and gas drilling, rather than adopt the same practices that caused and are worsening the climate emergency."

Biden was denounced in November for ignoring the DOJ's legal advice and moving forward with the nation's largest-ever offshore lease sale. That auction, which saw more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas giants, was blocked in January by a federal judge who wrote that the Biden administration violated NEPA by not adequately accounting for the likely consequences of resulting emissions.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration published a draft proposal that, if implemented, would permit up to 11 new oil and gas lease sales for drilling off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico over a five-year period.

"Despite the inclusion of new leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Cook Inlet in the proposed five-year offshore lease plan," Tuesday's letter notes, "you still have the power to stop new lease sales and protect Gulf and Alaska communities."

The president's 2021 pause on new federal lease auctions was intended to give the DOI time to analyze the "potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters."

Although the DOI has estimated that the social costs of burning oil and gas obtained through drilling and fracking on government-owned parcels range from $630 million to roughly $7 billion, its long-awaited review of the federal leasing program, published in November, largely ignored the climate crisis.

Notably, the moratorium the White House enacted last January did not affect existing leases. The Biden administration approved 34% more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first year than the Trump administration did in 2017, leading several environmental organizations to file a separate lawsuit last month.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons." Peer-reviewed research, meanwhile, has estimated that a nationwide prohibition on federal fossil fuel leasing would slash carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year.

Earlier this year, a coalition of more than 360 progressive advocacy groups submitted a legal petition imploring the Biden administration to use its executive authority to end fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. The petition includes a regulatory framework to reduce oil and gas production on federal property by 98% by 2035. According to the coalition, the Biden administration can achieve this goal by using long-dormant provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.

"The climate science is clear and uncompromising," says Tuesday's letter, which was co-signed by more than two dozen House Democrats including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (Ill.), Mondaire Jones (N.Y.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.).

"Our constituents are counting on you to do everything in your power to stop ballooning oil and gas drilling, rather than adopt the same practices that caused and are worsening the climate emergency," the lawmakers told Biden.

"You and your administration," they added, "have the authority and a clear pathway to address the quarter of U.S. climate emissions that come from fossil fuel extraction on public lands."

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