Groups Sue to Stop Biden From Offering 73 Million Acres to Oil Drillers in Gulf of Mexico
"We should be moving away from fossil fuels, not enabling an astounding amount of drilling for more than a generation to come," said one advocate.
Seven groups on Monday filed a legal challenge to the U.S. Interior Department's Lease Sale 259, which would offer 73.3 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico to the highest-bidding oil and gas drillers.
Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, Bayou City Waterkeeper, and Friends of the Earth filed the lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia. The complaint asks the court to "vacate or enjoin any leases issued or actions taken pursuant to the unlawful [sale] unless and until defendants comply with the law."
President Joe Biden's administration "previously canceled this and other sales, citing delays and 'conflicting court rulings,'" the groups explained in a joint statement. But then right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—the top congressional recipient of fossil fuel industry cash during the 2022 election cycle and a long-time coal profiteer—made his support for Biden's landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), contingent on the inclusion of oil and gas leasing provisions.
Congressional Democrats, with zero votes to spare in the Senate amid unified Republican opposition, passed a Manchin-approved version of the IRA last August. Lease Sale 259, one of the largest offshore auctions in U.S. history, is now scheduled for March 28, less than a month before the 13th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon BP disaster.
The groups acknowledged that the IRA directs the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to hold the lease sale. However, they stressed, "it does not require such a vast area to be auctioned to industry, nor does it exempt the sale from any existing laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act."
"Holding this offshore oil lease sale without careful environmental review is both unlawful and morally reprehensible."
"Lease Sale 259 would offer up all unleased areas in the western and central Gulf of Mexico, which could lock in a massive drilling operation to extract more than 1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years," the groups warned.
Such a move would fly in the face of the Biden administration's purported commitment to slashing planet-heating pollution and speeding up the adoption of renewables, critics argued.
"This administration has pledged to oversee a historic transition to clean energy, but actions speak louder than words," said Earthjustice attorney George Torgun. "We don't need a billion new barrels of crude oil threatening people and ecosystems in the Gulf."
Hallie Templeton, legal director of Friends of the Earth, said, "Yet again we find ourselves in the courtroom with the Biden administration over another unlawful and disastrous oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico."
Last year, a federal judge blocked Lease Sale 257, the nation's largest-ever offshore lease sale wherein more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico were put on the auction block.
“With each carbon bomb he drops, the president's pledge to end oil and gas drilling feels long forgotten," said Templeton. "BOEM should be proceeding with the utmost caution and ensuring that its oil and gas decisions comply with federal laws, not adding to our climate crisis."
\u201cToday we & our Gulf partners filed a federal court legal challenge to the Department of the Interior\u2019s lease sale 259 that would offer 73.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing. https://t.co/7XuIJnDgDj\u201d— Bayou City Waterkeeper (@Bayou City Waterkeeper) 1678125892
According to the complaint, BOEM's approval of Lease Sale 259 "was based on insufficient and arbitrary environmental analyses" in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The agency's final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) "failed to take the required 'hard look' at the significant impacts of this massive lease sale," the suit alleges.
Specifically, the complaint says, BOEM "did not rationally evaluate the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, relying instead on problematic modeling and assumptions to conclude that this massive lease sale will result in only 'slightly higher domestic emissions' than not leasing at all, and further failed to consider the impacts of such fossil fuel development on climate goals and commitments."
In addition, BOEM "arbitrarily dismissed the impacts of onshore oil and gas infrastructure—refineries, petrochemical plants, and other industrial sources that process fossil fuels and related products from Lease Sale 259—on Gulf communities," according to the suit. The groups also accuse the agency of ignoring "the latest air quality data" and presenting "an incomplete and misleading picture of oil spill impacts and risks based on flawed modeling that failed to properly consider reasonably foreseeable accidents."
Moreover, the complaint continues, BOEM "failed to properly disclose and consider the significant harm from ship strikes, pollution, and oil spills on endangered species such as the Rice's whale" and five of the world's seven species of sea turtles. The agency claimed that such impacts would be "negligible," even as experts fear the Rice's whale population has dropped below 50.
Finally, the suit accuses BOEM of failing "to consider reasonable scaled-back alternatives to its proposed action," and refusing "to adequately respond to plaintiffs' comments on the draft SEIS, offering only boilerplate responses and failing to grapple with and respond to substantive technical and legal critiques."
"The Biden administration needs to end new extraction, phase out drilling, and start taking its commitment to climate action seriously."
Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's Lands Protection Program, said that "selling off more of our lands and waters to the fossil fuel industry is the last thing we should do at a time when we need to be rapidly transitioning away from oil and gas to meet our nation's climate goals and create a livable planet for all."
"Offshore drilling devastates millions of acres of nature, contributes to an increasing number of climate disasters, and creates a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions," said Manuel. "While the IRA represents a historic step forward in achieving our nation's climate goals, we cannot let the bad provisions of the bill, including oil and gas leasing, undercut what we stand to gain."
Kristen Schlemmer, legal director for Bayou City Waterkeeper, echoed Manuel, noting that vulnerable residents of the Gulf Coast are already reeling from petrochemical pollution, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and intensified storms.
"We're at a point where we should be moving away from fossil fuels, not enabling an astounding amount of drilling for more than a generation to come," said Schlemmer. "For communities along the Houston Ship Channel, which are predominantly Black, brown, and lower-income, Lease Sale 259 creates an especially toxic combination of risks."
"More drilling means more facilities in their backyards," she added. "This will compound already elevated rates of cancer and heart and lung diseases, while also increasing risks during major storms."
In the words of Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at CBD, "Holding this offshore oil lease sale without careful environmental review is both unlawful and morally reprehensible."
"More oil drilling in the Gulf is too big a risk for the communities and wildlife living there, and too harmful to the climate," said Monsell. "The Biden administration needs to end new extraction, phase out drilling, and start taking its commitment to climate action seriously."