Last fall, the Biden administration shocked clean energy advocates — those are the people who voted FOR you, Joe, remember? — by approving the sale of oil and gas drilling leases across 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups were quick to sue the administration to block the sale of those leases. Last week, Rudolph Contreras, a US district court judge for the District of Columbia, struck down the Biden plan.
In his ruling, the judge severely criticized the administration, saying the agencies who did the environmental analysis for the plan to lease those drilling rights were guilty of a “serious failing” and a “grave error.” He ordered the new leases be vacated and for the Department of Interior to conduct a new analysis that accounts for the planet-heating gases that would result if the drilling went ahead, according to The Guardian.
“I’m thrilled the court saw through the Biden administration’s horribly reckless decision to hold the largest oil lease sale in US history without carefully studying the risks,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “New oil leases are fundamentally incompatible with addressing the climate emergency, and they will cause more oil spills and harm to wildlife and people in the Gulf.” (See today’s news about an oil spill in the waters off Thailand that is wreaking havoc on local beaches and wildlife. When will ever learn?)
The lease sale was held last November, just days after UN climate talks in Scotland, in which the President vowed the US would “lead by example” in tackling the climate crisis. Biden had previously promised to shut down all new oil and gas drilling to curb emissions of planet-heating gases. The administration claimed it was compelled to hold the sale due to a successful legal challenge by a dozen states to lift a pause Biden had placed on new drilling projects on federal land and waters. The Gulf of Mexico auction eventually resulted in 1.7 million acres sold off to oil firms including Exxon, Chevron, and BP — the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.
A previous Department of Justice memo, however, showed that the federal government did not believe it was obligated to hold the sale and climate activists have said the episode shows Biden is not sufficiently committed to averting the climate crisis. The International Energy Agency has said that there can be no new major fossil fuel projects if the world is to avoid disastrous global heating. Three congressional Democrats filed a brief with the court supporting the environment groups.
“These leases were a climate disaster waiting to happen,” said Raúl Grijalva, one of the three lawmakers and chair of the House natural resources committee. “This decision is a welcome chance to reset our federal fossil fuel leasing policies and limit carbon emissions while there is still time to prevent the most disastrous outcomes of climate change.”
A spokesperson for the Interior Department said the government will review the judge’s decision, adding that “long-overdue programmatic reforms” needed to be made in the management of oil and gas drilling across public lands and waters. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby group, said the decision was “disappointing” and that it will review its legal options.
Contreras’s ruling found that the government had relied upon an outdated and flawed environmental assessment from the Trump administration that claimed that greenhouse gases would actually increase if the lease sale did not go ahead, due to a reliance on foreign oil and gas supplies. The interior department had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in excluding foreign consumption from their greenhouse gas emissions” contrary to requirements under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, Contreras wrote.
Environmental groups involved in the case called on Biden to now halt all future drilling. “The Biden administration’s failure to adequately evaluate the climate impacts of this massive lease sale wasn’t just out of step with their stated commitment to climate action, it was also illegal,” said Devorah Ancel, senior attorney at the Sierra Club. “We are glad that the court has held them accountable for this reckless action, and we will continue to fight to protect Gulf coast communities from the dangers of offshore drilling and climate chaos.”
Biden Needs to Do More Than Talk
The Biden administration’s decision to offer oil and gas leases in 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico while making pious mouthings in public about its commitment to the environment struck many people as odd at the time. How to explain such a plan while pretending to be a friend of the Earth?
The answer can probably be found in politics. Last November, Biden’s approval ratings were in the toilet and sinking fast. People were angry about rising gasoline prices and inflation. The administration had to do something to stop the bleeding.
Do you remember the story of Br’er Rabbit, the wily trickster who convinced his tormentors to throw him in a briar patch by begging them NOT to throw him in the briar patch? Is it possible that Biden approved the sale of those leases to salvage some of his poll numbers while expecting the court to bail him out after the fact? Such a thing is certainly is not unheard of in the death match known as politics as played in America. Biden gets credit for approving the lease plan without suffering the blow-back that would have come his way if he refused to sanction the leasing plan. Stranger things have happened.
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