A Court Problem Becomes a Climate Credibility Challenge
Climate activists have wondered why on earth the Biden Administration would hold the largest oil and gas lease auction in history just days after COP26, in which nearly 200 countries pledged to end inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and enhance their climate ambition this decade. The answer is, "it's complicated." The trajectory of how we got here underscores the inadvertent interconnectedness of climate policy with a political battleground more often associated with issues like reproductive rights or health care: the federal judiciary.
How We Got Here
Lease Sale 257 was the Trump Administration's plan to auction off unprecedented amounts of offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The leases span 80 million acres of acres of public waters. If the auction is successful and the sales go through, and if the leases are actually drilled, it could generate upwards of 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.42 trillion cubic feet over the life of the leases.
There are, of course, many "ifs" in that sentence. In his first week in office, President Biden issued an executive order pressing the Department of the Interior to suspend all new fossil fuel leases on public lands (including waters). The hitch: this summer, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking the Biden executive order and allowing Lease Sale 257 to proceed, at least so far. The Administration is plotting its legal strategy for fighting this ruling in the Courts, and may still be able to nullify Lease Sale 257 or put it back on hold.
Why This Matters
This matters for three big reasons:
- Eight years of the Bush Administration and particularly four years of the Trump Administration reshaped America's courts. Conservative jurists have, for now, effectively stopped the Administration from using one of its most potent tools in the climate fight, executive authority. More importantly, big climate cases are winding their way through the federal judiciary, and some will reach the Supreme Court next year.
- The IEA has told us we need to stop developing new fossil fuel resources this decade. If these leases go forward, it could keep the United States exploring and drilling new fossil fuel wells, well past 2030.
- Every year that goes by that these leases are unexplored, clean energy alternatives become cheaper and the incentive to ever drill new leases becomes less and less economical. Offshore drilling requires massive amounts of deep-water resources.
The Guardian: Why we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground | Keep it in the ground, March 16, 2015.
IEA: Net Zero in 2050 - A roadmap for the global energy system, May 18, 2021.