This morning, I received an exciting press release from the Department of Energy: The federal agency now has a strategy in place to significantly expand the U.S.’s offshore wind capacity. Under the shiny new “Advancing Offshore Wind...” plan, the DOE hopes to support the Biden administration’s existing goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.
Wow, sounds great! We love a clear roadmap for a federal agency. Plus, if we make it to 30 GW of offshore wind, that would be more than 700 times the 42 megawatts we currently have in place. 30 GW would be enough energy to power more than 10 million homes for a year, per a 2022 Canary Media report.
Except, there’s this one teeny, tiny, little thing bothering me.
You see, the DOE’s wind plan isn’t the only bit of federal energy news for Wednesday, March 29. On the same day that President Joe Biden’s Energy Department is rather breathlessly promoting its sustainable wind strategy (“transformative potential,” “we’re leveraging all of the key resources ... to harness this clean and reliable American energy source,” “significantly drive down America’s carbon emissions”), the administration is also holding a massive offshore fossil fuel auction.
Lease Sale 259 takes place today. Through the auction, the Department of Interior is offering up the rights to more than 73 million acres of water in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas companies vying to develop and drill. Yet for some mysterious reason, I did not receive a federal press release this morning bragging about that sale.
Biden campaigned on promises to end all new fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and waters. “No more drilling on federal lands, period,” he said during a February 2020 campaign event. “Period, period, period,” he added.“No more drilling on federal lands. No more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill,” he said during a March 2020 debate against Senator Bernie Sanders. Clearly, those promises haven’t stuck.
Earlier this month, his administration approved the Willow drilling project in Alaska. In January, the Interior Department offered up nearly 1 million Alaskan offshore acres (although that lease sale flopped).
Previously, Biden’s DOI canceled Lease Sale 259, along with the Alaska auction and another planned Gulf sale. Yet then, the President reversed course. In negotiating the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden effectively ensured more fossil fuel development in federal waters.
Some have argued un-cancelling the auctions was a necessary compromise to get the IRA passed and move U.S. climate action forward. But for others, it’s a clear sign that Biden hasn’t taken his stated commitments to shift away from fossil fuels seriously.
It’s because of provisions in the IRA that Lease Sale 259 is moving forward, but “there’s nothing in the IRA that required it to be so large,” George Torgun, an attorney for environmental law group Earthjustice, told CNN. “It’s double the size of Willow. It’s going to lock in fossil fuel development in the Gulf for the next 50 years,” he added.
The DOI forecasted that just the drilling and development resulting from the auction alone could emit about 21.2 million metric tons of CO2 in its environmental review—equivalent to about 4.6 million cars’ annual emissions. And that’s not taking into account the actual emissions from the fossil fuels extracted under Lease Sale 259 and subsequently burned. Those “downstream” emissions are estimated to exceed 243.3 million metric tons of CO2, per the assessment. In total, it’s almost 275 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that wouldn’t otherwise have entered the atmosphere.
No matter how many offshore windmills we build, climate change doesn’t stop progressing unless and until we drastically reduce our burning of fossil fuels. The idea with renewables is that they should be replacing fossil fuels, not expanding alongside them.
Then, there are the issues of oil spills and local air pollution that have plagued the Gulf region for decades, thanks to the petroleum industry. Expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico hurts the climate, but it additionally harms the ecosystems and people nearby—especially when fossil fuel companies don’t even take accountability for their existing offshore infrastructure.
Multiple environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the DOI and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management earlier this month, in an attempt to get the new lease sale halted or invalidated on the basis that the environmental review was flawed. A previous, similar attempt against an 80-million-acre lease sale in the Gulf proved effective.
The outcome of the new lawsuit is, at minimum, months away. In the meantime, companies will stake their claims on millions of undeveloped acres in the Gulf. Ahead of the auction, 27 fossil fuel corporations expressed interest in bids covering more than 1.6 million acres of what Lease Sale 259 is offering.
Big wind plans or not, today doesn’t quite feel like a climate win.