Courts Battle Over Fate of Offshore Oil & Gas Auction

Courts Battle Over Fate of Offshore Oil & Gas Auction

In a federal court ruling last Thursday, Judge Rudolph Contreras invalidated the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history, citing the underlying Trump Administration's "flawed analysis of the climate change impact of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico," as reported by the Washington Post. President Biden's auctioning of the 1.7 million acres of drilling and oil leases last November has been a topic of major controversy. The auction came just days after COP26 and was flagged by environmental advocates who called out the mixed messaging between the President’s actions and his campaign promises and COP26 pledges.

Shortly after taking office, President Biden canceled the auction and suspended new oil and gas drilling on lands and waters owned by the federal government in an effort to review and improve existing policies. But in June, a Louisiana federal judge ruled that the moratorium requires congressional approval and that the auction had to proceed unless Congress stopped it.

"We were compelled to proceed with Lease Sale 257 based on the previous administration’s environmental analysis and its decision to approve the lease sale," said Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Interior Sec. Deb Haaland, in a statement. "Especially in the face of the climate crisis, we need to take the time to make significant and long overdue programmatic reforms."

Why This Matters

The new decision means the Biden administration will not have to follow through on leases it didn’t want to auction in the first place. And it gives the Administration an opportunity to conduct new environmental analyses, which climate activists hope will lead to greater protections of federal land from oil companies.

American Petroleum Institute (API) -- the oil and gas industry's largest trade group -- weighed in. API spokesman Scott Lauermann said he was disappointed by the decision and that the industry would look hard at its legal options.

What Comes Next?

Biden's report card with environmental advocates has been hit hard by the volume of new leases issued since his taking office. Even "the president himself has acknowledged some measure of 'irony'" when it comes to fossil fuel production. How the Biden administration responds to this ruling is important for climate, and also for critics who say his reforms are coming too slow.

While the oil and gas industry has been vocal about pursuing further action, with lease-ups of the Gulf stalled, the Biden Administration has bought itself some time. White House Spokesperson Jennifer Psaki did not detail a new Administration's legal strategy but reiterated that until now, legal challenges "made it impossible … to stop many of these leases."

Now This: Why Resuming Oil and Gas Leasing is Bad for the Environment, October 24, 2021.