Three environmental groups on Thursday filed a 30-day
notice of their intent to sue the Biden administration for refusing to respond to a petition to wind down fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters.
Signed by a coalition of more than 360 progressive advocacy organizations, the January 2022
petition submitted to President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland provides a framework to slash federal oil and gas production by 98% by 2035 using long-dormant provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.
Research published after the petition was submitted shows that wealthy countries must end oil and gas production entirely by 2034 to give the world a 50% chance of meeting the Paris agreement's more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C—beyond which the climate emergency's impacts will grow increasingly deadly, especially for the world's poor who have done the least to cause the crisis.
And yet, not only has the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) ignored the coalition's regulatory blueprint for more than a year, but the agency on Monday approved the Willow project—ConocoPhillips' massive oil drilling operation in Alaska's North Slope. This decision, which prompted a pair of separate lawsuits, was the latest but far from the only time that Biden has reneged on his 2020 promise to curb federal fossil fuel extraction. A recent analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity shows that the Biden administration rubber-stamped more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years than the Trump administration did in 2017 and 2018.
"Biden's approval of the climate-killing Willow project shows how desperately we need rules cracking down on runaway oil and gas extraction on public lands," Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity said Thursday in a
statement. "The climate deadline to end oil and gas extraction in the U.S. is 2034, and the natural place to start is on land the federal government controls. It's pathetic that legal action is needed to force the administration to act."
With Thursday's notice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and WildEarth Guardians informed Haaland that they intend to sue DOI for "unreasonable delay" if, 30 days from now, the agency "has still not initiated rulemaking or provided a substantive response" to last year's petition.
The Administrative Procedure Act requires federal agencies to respond to such petitions within a "reasonable" amount of time, the groups explained. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, they argued, DOI's 14-month period of inaction violates federal law.
"We can't frack our way to a safe climate and this lawsuit aims to ensure President Biden's administration heeds the reality that we need to transition the United States away from both the consumption and production of oil and gas."
"Far from living up to his promise to protect the climate, President Biden is actually undermining his commitment to the American public to end fossil fuel leasing," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We can't frack our way to a safe climate and this lawsuit aims to ensure President Biden's administration heeds the reality that we need to transition the United States away from both the consumption and production of oil and gas."
As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed to prohibit new oil and gas lease sales on public lands and waters and to require federal permitting decisions to weigh the social costs of additional greenhouse gas pollution. Although Biden issued an executive order suspending new fossil fuel leasing during his first week in office, his administration's actions since then have flown in the face of earlier pledges.
On August 24, 2021, DOI argued that it had no choice but to restart lease auctions due to a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. Judge Terry A. Doughty, a Trump appointee who ruled in favor of Big Oil-funded Republican attorneys general who sued Biden over his moratorium. In a memorandum of opposition filed on the same day, however, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted that while Doughty's decision blocked the implementation of Biden's pause, it did not force the DOI to hold new lease sales, "let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs' contempt motion."
Just days after Biden described global warming as "an existential threat to human existence" and declared Washington's purported commitment to decarbonization at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the DOI ignored the DOJ's legal advice and moved forward with Lease Sale 257. The nation's largest-ever offshore auction, which saw more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas drillers, was blocked in January 2022 by a federal judge who argued that the Biden administration violated environmental laws by not adequately considering the likely consequences of resulting emissions.
"Interior's delay on our petition to phase down fossil fuel extraction and development is not only unreasonable, it is simply unacceptable."
Despite Biden's pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution in half by the end of this decade, the DOI held lease sales in several Western states in 2022, opening up tens of thousands of acres of public land to fossil fuel production.
Moreover, the White House supported the demands of right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—the top congressional recipient of fossil fuel industry cash during the 2022 election cycle and a longtime coal profiteer—to add oil and gas leasing provisions to the Inflation Reduction Act. The DOI has so far announced plans for multiple onshore and offshore lease sales in 2023.
The president's 2021 freeze on new lease auctions was intended to give the DOI time to assess the "potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters." The agency's review of the federal leasing program effectively ignored the climate crisis, however, focusing instead on proposed adjustments to royalties, bids, and bonding in what environmental justice advocates characterized as a "shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters."
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that about 25% of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions and 7% of its overall methane emissions stem from fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. A 2015 analysis prepared for the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth warned that federal fossil fuels already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons of potential planet-heating pollution, and those not yet leased hold another 450 billion tons. According to peer-reviewed research, a nationwide ban on federal oil and gas leasing would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 280 million tons per year.
"It's tragic that climate chaos has raged on Biden's watch," Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said Thursday. "People are dying, sea levels are rising, and we are rapidly reaching the point of no return."
"Interior's delay on our petition to phase down fossil fuel extraction and development is not only unreasonable, it is simply unacceptable," said Templeton. "We hope that our lawsuit clears the administration's apparent apathy and spurs the urgent action that this code-red moment calls for."