January 28, 2022 A Major Oil and Gas Lease Sale Was Just Canceled

Nearly $192 million worth of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico will no longer move forward after a federal judge invalidated the sales Thursday, saying the Biden administration failed to properly account for the auction’s impact on climate change. It’s a big victory for environmentalists who have criticized the president, and his top public lands official Deb Haaland, for not following through on a campaign promise to halt oil and gas production on federally-owned land.

In a move that baffled climate campaigners and many in the president’s progressive wing, the Biden administration moved forward with a Trump-era plan to put 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico up for auction last year, making it the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. Though just 1.7 million acres were purchased in the auction, environmentalists questioned why an administration that has vowed to make fighting global warming a priority didn’t bother to at least pare down the massive sale.

In fact, President Biden has outpaced his predecessor when it comes to issuing drilling permits on public lands. And Biden’s Interior Department still plans to auction off oil and gas drilling rights on more than 200,000 acres across Western states by the end of March, followed by another 1 million acres off the coast of Alaska. Activists say the sales highlight the growing disconnect between President Biden’s rhetoric on climate change and his administration’s inability to slow fossil fuel production and put the nation on track to meet the president’s pledge of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Thursday’s ruling now sends the matter of the Gulf Coast sale back to the federal government, and some say it’s an opportunity for Biden to follow through on his promise to end new drilling. 

The administration can choose not to hold the Gulf Coast sale at all, said Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit that represented advocacy groups in the lawsuit challenging the leases.  

“All of the scientists are waving their arms and saying the time to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is now,” he said in an interview with Inside Climate News, adding that the decision of whether to move ahead with a new lease sale now rests squarely with the administration. “This is going to be a really big test.” 

The Biden administration initially attempted to uphold its promise last year, when it issued a temporary pause on all new oil and gas lease sales. But that order was blocked by a Trump-appointed federal judge in June. Since then, the administration has done little to curb fossil fuel production on federal lands, raising doubts among liberals over whether the administration can accomplish its ambitious environmental agenda.

Others have argued that Biden is making a political calculation ahead of a potentially damaging midterm election. Biden’s approval ratings have steadily slipped since last summer and Democrats are worried of losing their narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress. A drilling ban could hurt the party’s candidates in swing states with substantial federal oil and gas leasing, such as New Mexico and Colorado, some analysts have said.

Those analysts have also said that the administration could do well to focus on more impactful actions, arguing that emissions from drilling on public land is notable but relatively small when compared to major contributing sectors like transportation. Under that interpretation, drilling on public lands accounts for about one-fifth of U.S. energy-related emissions. 

If you include the downstream emissions from burning the fuels, however, the climate impact is far greater. And it was the government’s failure to complete this analysis that prompted the judge this week to vacate the lease sale.

Should the administration choose to continue the auctions, it’s unclear just what political edge is gained by President Biden from a climate perspective. With almost every climate-related measure yanked from the negotiating table, Democrats are struggling to find any ground to push forward national policy. What is clear is that in the President’s attempt to avoid scorn from moderates in oil-producing states, he’s sparked ire from the political left, who say the president has too many unfulfilled promises. We’ll know better if Biden’s gamble paid off this November.

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

(Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report)

Today’s Indicator

523 acres

That’s how much land a California nonprofit has just returned to 10 sovereign Native tribes whose ancestors were “forcibly removed” from the land by European American settlers.