A federal judge on Thursday vacated dozens of oil and gas leases that fossil fuel companies entered into late last year in the Gulf of Mexico, concluding that the Biden administration failed to properly consider the climate impacts when it ran its massive offshore auction.
The decision is a major victory for environmental groups, which are suing to block what many are calling the ticking “carbon bomb”.
Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sided with the plaintiffs in the case, who argued that the Department of the Interior relied on flawed analysis that underestimated the planet-warming greenhouse gases and associated environmental impacts from future drilling. and development of lease agreements.
The interior “acted arbitrary and capricious in excluding foreign consumption from its calculations of greenhouse gas emissions,” Contreras wrote.
The offshore sale – the largest in U.S. history – auctioned over 80 million acres of the bay. The companies ended up bidding more than $191 million for drilling rights on more than 1.7 million offshore acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware.
“We are delighted that the court has found Interior’s illegal lease deal,” Brettney Hardy, a senior lawyer with Earthjustice, who represented several environmental organizations in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “We simply cannot continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry, putting our communities at risk and warming the planet more and more.”
Hardy added that it was time for the administration to deliver on President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to ban new federal fossil fuel leasing. “We can no longer afford to do anything less,” she said.
The Biden administration has argued it had no choice but to continue the offshore sale after a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana overturned a Biden executive order in January 2021 that temporarily suspended new oil and gas leases on federal land and waters.
But environmental lawyers have insisted the administration has options to cut, delay or stop it, including requiring an appeals court to uphold — or suspend — the injunction.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, confirmed that the administration’s hands were tied.
“Under an injunction issued in a Louisiana District Court litigation, we have been forced to proceed with the 257 lease sale based on the previous administration’s environmental review and decision to approve the lease sale,” she said via email. “We are reviewing the court’s decision regarding the shortcomings in this recording.
“Our public lands and waters must be protected for future generations,” she added. “We have recorded serious shortcomings in the federal oil and gas program. Especially in the face of the climate crisis, we need to find time to implement significant and long overdue policy reforms. Our work will be guided by law, science and sound policy.”
The American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas lobby and meddling defendant in the case, called the judge’s decision “disappointing” and said it was considering options.
“Offshore energy development plays a critical role in strengthening our nation’s economy and energy security,” API spokesman Scott Lauermann said in an email.
The now-cancelled lease sale eclipsed the Trump administration’s last Gulf auction in 2020, when 518,000 acres sold for $121 million, and threatened to freeze drilling and greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. According to Interior’s own estimates, this was expected to produce an additional 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas within a few decades.
“Today’s decision is a win-win not only for the communities, wildlife and ecosystem of the Gulf, but for a planet that is warming up,” Hallie Templeton, legal director of Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.