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Lawsuit challenges Biden’s resumption of oil, gas leasing on public lands

Fossil fuel expansion undermines Biden’s climate goals, campaign promises
WASHINGTON -

Climate and conservation groups filed a lawsuit today challenging the Biden administration's resumption of oil and gas leasing on public lands, the first auction since the president paused leasing shortly after taking office.

The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior and U.S. Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) approval of today's oil and gas lease sales in Montana, North Dakota, Nevada and Utah. These lease auctions will be immediately followed by sales in Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma and Wyoming. Collectively, these sales will open more than 140,000 acres of public land to fossil-fuel production.

"Overwhelming scientific evidence shows us that burning fossil fuels from existing leases on federal lands is incompatible with a livable climate," said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. "In spite of this administration's climate commitments, the Department of Interior is choosing to resume oil and gas leasing. The very least the BLM could do is acknowledge the connected nature of these six lease sales and their collective impact on federal lands and the earth's climate. Its failure to do so is an attempt to water down the climate effects of the decision to continue leasing, and is a clear abdication of BLM's responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act."

The groups assert that BLM has violated environmental laws by continuing to authorize fossil fuel extraction on public lands.  The challenged lease sales are expected to result in billions of dollars in social and environmental harm, including negative impacts on public health, air and water quality, and local wildlife,such as the embattled greater sage grouse and other endangered species.

The lawsuit cites a failure of the Interior Department and BLM to uphold their responsibility under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which requires Interior to prevent "permanent impairment" and "unnecessary or undue degradation" of public lands from oil and gas development. It also calls for BLM to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement. That should analyze the compatibility of the predicted increased greenhouse gas emissions with the urgent need to avoid the catastrophe of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, rather than in piecemeal analyses.

"We're out of time and our climate can't afford any new fossil fuel developments," said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. "By leasing more of our public lands to oil companies, President Biden is breaking campaign promises and falling dangerously short of the global leadership required to avoid catastrophic climate change.

"President Biden came into office promising bold action on climate. Moving forward with these lease sales flies in the face of science and any chance for us to meet our climate goals," Dan Ritzman, director of Sierra Club's Lands, Water, Wildlife campaign. "For the sake of our environment and our future, we must transition away from the toxic fossil fuel industry that prioritizes handouts to oil and gas companies over the interests of local communities, wildlife, and conservation efforts."

Several analyses show that already-producing fossil fuel fields, if fully developed, will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects and phasing out production to keep as much as 40% of already-developed fields in the ground.

"While people are getting gouged at the pump by greedy oil and gas companies, the Biden administration is bending over backward to give more breaks to the industry and sell public lands for fracking," said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "This isn't just undermining our climate, it's undermining our nation's ability to transition away from costly fossil fuels and toward cleaner, more affordable energy."

Thousands of organizations and communities from across the U.S. have called on President Biden to halt federal fossil fuel expansion, to phase out production consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and develop new rules under long-ignored legal authorities to serve those goals.

"Continuing to sell public lands to oil companies for development flies in the face of the president's promises and climate science," said Derf Johnson, staff attorney for the Montana Environmental Information Center. "It's time to be brave and take bold action, rather than bowing to the demands of one of the most damaging and profitable industries on the planet."

"While the pain at the gas pump is real, selling more of our public lands to Big Oil will not lower prices, but will lock the U.S. into decades of GHG-spewing projects with costly and damaging, long-term climate and water impacts to our communities, economy, and environment," said Marc Yaggi, CEO of Waterkeeper Alliance. "To preserve any chance of mitigating the ongoing climate catastrophe, President Biden must honor his pledge to ban all new leasing of our public lands."

The administration's promised comprehensive climate review of the federal oil and gas programs under Executive Order 14008 culminated in a report released the day after Thanksgiving that barely mentioned climate,  presumes more climate-incompatible oil and gas leasing, and suggests modest economic reforms proposed by the Government  Accountability Office decades ago.

Conservation groups earlier this month filed a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration's 3,525 drilling permit approvals in the Permian and Powder River basins. The Biden administration approved 34% more drilling during its first year than the Trump administration, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Climate pollution from federal fossil fuels is hastening the extinction crisis while impacting communities nationwide with extreme weather, wildfires, regional aridification and river drying, droughts, heat waves and rising seas. Warming and pollution from federal fossil fuel extraction harms everyone, and disproportionately harms Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, a fact the Biden Administration has repeatedly acknowledged.

"The public is absorbing substantial economic and ecological costs from fossil-fuel-driven climate disruption, including massive fires, biodiversity loss, superstorms, and extended drought," said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. "Federal minerals belong to the public and should be managed in the public interest, which clearly dictates keeping federal fossil fuel deposits safely buried underground." 

The June lease sales come amid record oil and gas industry profit-taking. The watchdog organization Accountable.US reported in February that Shell, Chevron, BP and Exxon made more than $75.5 billion in profits in 2021, some of their highest profits in the past decade. Major oil companies also reported billions in profits in the first quarter of 2022.

 

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WildEarth Guardians protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Driven by passion, we’ve tackled some of the West’s most difficult and pressing conservation challenges over the past three decades. We’ve celebrated small victories (banning leghold trapping in the state of Colorado), monumental triumphs (ending logging on more than 21 million acres in the Southwest), and everything in-between.

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