One of President Joe Biden’s boldest environmental campaign promises was to ban new oil and natural gas leasing on public land and water. But on Wednesday his administration will open more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to auction for drilling.
The auction is at odds with Biden’s climate agenda – the President has also promised to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 – and environmental advocates say it could set US climate goals back for years.
The administration tried in its first days in office to put a stop to new oil and gas drilling. On January 27, Biden signed an executive order that paused new permits and directed the Department of Interior to launch a “rigorous review” of existing programs related to fossil fuel development.
But a lawsuit filed in March on behalf of 13 states led to a judgment that blocked Biden’s pause.
“Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” Judge Terry Doughty wrote in his ruling. Doughty was nominated in 2017 to the US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana by then-President Donald Trump.
The Biden administration is moving forward with the new leasing, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said their hands are tied.
“We’re required to comply with the injunction; it’s a legal case and legal process,” Psaki told reporters Monday. “But it’s important for advocates and other people out there to understand that it’s not aligned with our view, the President’s policies or the executive order that he signed.”
Psaki said the US Department of Justice is appealing the Louisiana decision. But in the meantime, the sale is going forward, and some environmental advocates are strongly criticizing the administration for not taking stronger action to block it.
The Justice Department did not return CNN’s request for comment.
Brettny Hardy, an attorney with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice leading a lawsuit against the Interior Department, argued the Biden administration could have filed a more aggressive appeal in court, declined to hold the sale this week or withdrawn some of the areas in the Gulf from leasing.
“The sale is going to lock in [oil and gas] production for years to come,” Hardy told CNN. “By that time, we need to be moving away from fossil fuels in order to survive. This lease sale is a really critical juncture and is sending us in the exact opposite direction.”
The Trump administration, which first proposed the Gulf of Mexico sale in 2017, estimated it would generate 21 million to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and from 55 billion to 4.42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The Interior Department’s review of the federal oil and gas leasing program – which was initially due this summer – is still not public and its release date is unclear. Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz told CNN she did not have an update on the review.
Schwartz said the review will include an analysis of how much greenhouse gas would be emitted by Gulf Coast leases.
“Interior is conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before,” Schwartz said.
Environmental groups, including Earthjustice, have sued Interior for moving ahead with the sale, arguing that the department is relying on outdated analyses and climate modeling and shouldn’t proceed with the sale until there’s new information on the emissions impact.
“It’s deeply troubling that the people charged with protecting our public lands and oceans are ignoring court rulings and their own data showing this lease sale is illegal and reckless,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva sharply criticized the administration for moving forward with the lease before making its review public, just days after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
“This administration went to Scotland and told the world that America’s climate leadership is back, and now it’s about to hand over 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico to fossil fuel companies,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This is happening under the same lax environmental and safety requirements and inadequate financial assurances that have put Americans in harm’s way for decades.”
Though it came too late to prevent the auction from going forward, environmental advocates suing the administration hope to get a decision on their case by January 1, before the resulting leases would go into effect.
“We set our schedule so that we have an opportunity to get a decision before then,” Hardy said.