An offshore petroleum drilling rig

An offshore petroleum drilling rig is shown in the Gulf of Mexico on August 8, 2020.

(Photo: Ron Buskirk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Gulf Drilling Leases Decried as Another Biden Climate Failure

"Communities of the Gulf Coast are tired of being a sacrifice zone, and the Biden administration disappointingly missed a historic opportunity to protect our people and planet," one campaigner said of the latest auction.

Climate campaigners are calling out U.S. President Joe Biden for holding a court-ordered auction for drilling rights in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico this week as they demand far bolder action on the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.

After a drawn-out legal battle over 73 million acres important to the endangered Rice's whale as well as local fishing and tourism, Lease Sale 261 was held Wednesday and raised $382 million from 26 companies including Anadarko, BP, Chevron, Hess, Equinor, Repsol, and Shell.

With the sale, "we're again seeing our waters and environment sold off at bargain prices to oil and gas companies, just devastating after a year of record-breaking heat," said Healthy Gulf campaign director Raleigh Hoke. "Communities of the Gulf Coast are tired of being a sacrifice zone, and the Biden administration disappointingly missed a historic opportunity to protect our people and planet and solidify his commitment to climate justice by standing up to Big Oil."

"Lease Sale 261 is a major step backwards for President Biden's climate and justice goals."

Hoke and others, including Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), stressed that future drilling in the region could imperil marine life, including further threats to the already at-risk whale species.

"The oil industry and its allies know the Rice's whale could go extinct if they keep expanding Gulf drilling, but they've pushed aggressively to prioritize their profits and hold this sale anyway," said Monsell. "Perpetual leasing, new fossil fuel export projects, and oil spills in the Gulf are creating a hellish situation for marine life and frontline communities that's only getting worse. We can't wait any longer for President Biden to fight back and phase out offshore drilling altogether."

Oceana acting campaign director Michael Messmer pointed out that "the gluttonous appetite of oil and gas companies has led them to already hoard away thousands of leases on millions of acres across the Gulf of Mexico. They don't need any more."

"While President Biden had to move forward with this sale by court order, he does have the authority to prevent the expansion of offshore drilling through executive authority to permanently protect U.S. waters and coasts," Messmer added. "The United States can lead the call for a transition away from fossil fuels that was agreed upon by more than 200 countries at COP28 last week, but only if President Biden steps up to permanently protect our waters from future offshore drilling."

The final deal out of COP28, the United Nations climate talks that concluded in Dubai earlier this month, explicitly endorsed a move away from fossil fuels—a historic first but far from the phaseout demanded by science and many countries enduring the impacts of global warming, including rising seas, more extreme weather, and devastating wildfires.

"On the heels of a historic global agreement at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels and the release of the first-ever White House Ocean Justice Strategy, Lease Sale 261 is a major step backwards for President Biden's climate and justice goals," said Ocean Defense Initiative director Jean Flemma.

While campaigning in 2020, Biden—who is now seeking reelection next year—vowed to end new fossil fuel leases for public lands and waters, but he has run up against the courts and industry allies in Congress. A CBD analysis from January found that the administration allowed more drilling permits for federal land during its first two years than were approved in 2017-18 under former President Donald Trump, the GOP's 2024 front-runner who says he wants to "drill, drill, drill" if reelected.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed by Biden last year included significant climate provisions but also mandated some lease sales—including the one held Wednesday—and conditioned the use of public lands and waters for renewable energy development on future fossil fuel auctions. In line with that, the administration on Friday finalized a new offshore drilling plan.

The five-year plan features the fewest Gulf sales in history, with just three set to be held in 2025, 2027, and 2029. While Big Oil and its congressional backers wanted a more industry-friendly plan, critics warn any more drilling is incompatible with climate ambitions.

"Each additional oil and gas lease sale makes it harder to achieve the ambitious goals we need to achieve to stave off climate catastrophe," Athan Manuel, Sierra Club's lands protection program director, said Wednesday. "2023 will likely be the hottest year on record. At this critical moment, we should be expanding clean energy, not locking ourselves into fossil fuel for decades. We once again call on the Biden administration to take the bold action we need and end new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters."

Biden has enraged frontline communities, green groups, and younger voters by not only continuing lease sales but also backing liquefied natural gas expansion, the Willow oil project in Alaska, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. He also skipped COP28 and has refused to declare a national climate emergency.

"No amount of new leasing or development for offshore oil and gas is acceptable to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis," charged Zero Hour executive director Zanagee Artis. "The hundreds of millions of dollars in bids on Lease Sale 261 represent a failure of our leaders to protect the futures of young people and our most vulnerable communities and ecosystems. It is time to end the era of fossil fuels."

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