In a move that has some environmental activists charging it with hypocrisy, the Biden administration has approved the sale of oil and gas drilling rights to more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico — an act it says was mandated by a federal court ruling.
The auction on Wednesday by an arm of the U.S. Interior Department resulted in leases for 1.7 million of the 80 million available acres, with Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. among the top buyers. Some 308 lots were purchased for a total of $191.7 million, though it is not certain exactly how much of that will ultimately be developed.
The decision came just days after the close of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), at which President Joe Biden promised that the United States would be “leading by the power of our example” in the effort to achieve a zero-emissions future.
While some environmental groups accuse the administration of going back on its word, the Biden administration has said that it was forced to agree to the sale by a federal court ruling.
Shortly after taking office in January, Biden announced a moratorium on new leases for oil and gas projects on federal property. Republican attorneys general in more than a dozen states filed lawsuits challenging the halt in lease auctions, and in June, a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana issued an injunction instructing the Biden administration to resume selling drilling rights.
At the time, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, which oversees the leasing of public lands for energy development, said, “We are reviewing the judge’s opinion, and will comply with the decision.”
In 2018, a report from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the operations of the fossil fuels industry — that is, the extraction, refining, and transportation of fuels, before they are actually used by the consumer — is responsible for about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The report is frequently cited by environmental groups opposed to the leasing of public lands for energy development.
Wednesday’s auction took place despite a pending lawsuit filed in Washington by the climate activist group Earthjustice. The suit alleges that an environmental impact study conducted in 2017, which the Biden administration used to justify the auction, was flawed and cannot be relied on.
Other options available
Brettny Hardy, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, told VOA that Biden had several other options for preventing the auction of the new leases but chose not to exercise them.
“The administration keeps saying that his hands were tied because of this Louisiana court ruling. But the administration has a ton of discretion under the underlying statute which is at play here, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.”
She acknowledged that the administration is appealing the district court ruling but criticized it for not seeking a stay of the judge’s ruling while the appeal is decided.
Additionally, she said, the administration is aware of the failings of the environmental impact study underpinning the lease auction, pointing out that two other courts have already ruled that the greenhouse gas emissions model it used was insufficient. The administration could have used that knowledge to declare the auction illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Energy industry pleased
By contrast, the energy industry and its supporters in Washington cheered the move.
In a statement provided to VOA, Frank Macchiarola, American Petroleum Institute senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said: “U.S. oil and natural gas production on federal lands and waters delivers the affordable and reliable energy America needs while providing much-needed funding for conservation, education, infrastructure and other important state and local priorities.”
“Notably, U.S. oil and natural gas produced offshore in the Gulf of Mexico is also among the lowest carbon barrels produced in the world, according to U.S. Department of the Interior analysis that shows emissions from international substitutions are more carbon intensive,” he added.
In a statement, Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group for the offshore energy industry, called on the Biden administration to offer more lease auctions in the future.
“Continued leasing is critical to our energy future; good decisions today will benefit America tomorrow,” he said, adding that certainty about future leases “will advance climate progress, stimulate continued economic growth, support high-paying jobs throughout the country, and strengthen our long-term national security.”
It will take between five and 10 years for actual oil production to begin on the new sites, but once a site is producing oil, the energy company running the drilling operation is typically allowed to extend the lease indefinitely.
The Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf, a 160-million-acre expanse that includes the areas sold Wednesday, holds about 48 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 141 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
A ‘carbon bomb’
Environmental organizations said this week that they remain focused on pressuring the Biden administration to roll back the leases and reimpose the moratorium on additional auctions.
“The Biden administration is lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast,” she said. “Biden has the authority to stop this, but instead he’s casting his lot in with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency.”