On Thursday, a federal judge threw out the Department of Interior's decision to lease more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas production — the largest offshore auction in U.S. history. The sale, which came just days after Biden vowed to "lead by example" in cutting emissions during U.N. climate talks in Scotland, could have resulted in 600 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Guardian analysis of Interior Department data.
In a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and others, the groups argued that the environmental analysis conducted under the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by vastly underestimating the proposed sale's climate impacts. In its assessment of the five-year leasing plan, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded that the climate impacts would be worse if the leases went unsold because it would result in an increase in less-regulated development overseas.
In his decision, Washington D.C. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras agreed, ruling that the Biden administration relied on a faulty analysis of greenhouse-gas emissions that would result from the sale, violating federal law.
"This is a victory for all Gulf communities impacted by the onshore pollution from offshore drilling in the Gulf," said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of Healthy Gulf, one of the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit. "Today, we can look forward to the day when we stop selling off our public waters for pennies on the dollar when a just transition to a clean energy future is critical to our very survival."
Environmental groups have routinely blasted the Biden administration for pledging to end fossil fuel development on federal lands and waters while simultaneously selling leases and approving drilling at a rapid clip. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management released data showing that the Biden administration had approved 3,557 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands, outpacing the Trump administration's first-year count of 2,658 permits. More than 360 conservation and environmental-justice groups last week petitioned the administration to phase out oil and gas production on federal lands and waters to near zero by 2035.
In the first round of Gulf leasing, companies including Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil offered a combined $192 million for drilling rights on 308 tracts of seabed totaling more than 1.7 million acres. Although the sale had gone forward as planned, those leases had not yet taken effect, according to court documents.
In a statement, Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz reiterated the department's position that it was "compelled to proceed" with the sale because of a previous court ruling that blocked Biden's executive order to pause the federal leasing program. An August memo from the Department of Justice, however, contradicts those claims.
The Biden administration must now perform a new environmental analysis if it plans to resurrect the offshore leasing plan.
"Biden's runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership," said Taylor McKinnon, a senior public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires ending new fossil fuel extraction, but Biden is racing in the opposite direction."
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