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Drilling in California

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

Federal Court Strikes Down Ruling That Blocked Biden's Drilling Moratorium

"Today's decision demonstrates how flawed the preliminary injunction issued in June 2021 was, and that Interior must quickly take action to reform the federal fossil fuel program," said one environmental lawyer.

Julia Conley

Climate justice advocates on Wednesday applauded a federal appeals court decision striking down a 2021 ruling which had blocked the Biden administration's moratorium on oil and gas drilling lease sales—and paved the way for the largest lease auction in U.S. history last year.

Wednesday's ruling by Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in Louisiana could allow the administration to reinstate the moratorium President Joe Biden introduced shortly after taking office in January 2021.

The Wilderness Society called the ruling "encouraging news" as scientists warn fossil fuel extraction must end swiftly in order to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.

In June 2021, U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty, who was appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump, ruled that Congress had to approve the leasing moratorium and that the pause carried "a substantial threat of irreparable injury" to states where fossil fuel drilling takes place.

"We are in a climate emergency and cannot afford any new leasing that will further entrench the fossil fuel industry's hold on our country's energy future."

When the Biden administration restarted lease sales, the U.S. Department of Interior said it was doing so because it had to comply with Doughty's temporary injunction, even though lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) advised Biden that Doughty's ruling "does not compel Interior to take the actions specified by plaintiffs, let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs' contempt motion."

According to the DOJ and environmental lawyers, the June 2021 decision did not require the administration to sell fossil fuel leases on federal lands, as it attempted to do with 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last November. Less than two million acres sold and the sale was later invalidated by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia due to a flawed climate impact analysis.

On Wednesday, Higginbotham ruled that the June 2021 ruling "was too vague to be valid," according to The Washington Post.

The ruling came a day after Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which has been praised by progressives for its historic investment in renewable energy and which could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, according to researchers at Princeton.

The law also contains major concessions to the fossil fuel industry and right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has strong financial ties to the sector—including linking solar and wind power expansion to continued drilling lease auctions.

"Today's decision demonstrates how flawed the preliminary injunction issued in June 2021 was, and that Interior must quickly take action to reform the federal fossil fuel program," Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for environmental justice firm Earthjustice, told Common Dreams.

"We are in a climate emergency," he added, "and cannot afford any new leasing that will further entrench the fossil fuel industry's hold on our country's energy future and inflict harm on communities and ecosystems both onshore and offshore."

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