The Biden Administration Is Restarting Oil and Gas Leasing Even Though It Doesn’t Have To

The administration will hold a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico in November.

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A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana.
A rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana.
Photo: Gerald Herbert (AP)

On Tuesday, the Biden administration said it was looking at re-opening the federal program to sell oil and gas leases on federal land—and preparing for a specific sale in the Gulf of Mexico in November. It flies in the face of established research, which shows that all new oil and gas exploration needs to basically stop entirely by next year for us to stave off catastrophic warming... but who cares! Drill, baby, drill?

The issue of oil and gas leases on federal land has been a wild ride ever since the Biden administration took office in January. As one of his first acts, President Joe Biden officially paused the oil and gas leasing program. The pause, the executive order said, was not a blanket forever ban. Instead, it was intended to give the Interior Department time to conduct a review on the climate impacts of these leases and update the outdated leasing program to make sure the public had a fair input and that it adequately addressed cleanup issues. 

Now, the Department of Interior has moved this week to rev that program back up in response to a lawsuit brought by attorneys general from Republican states. 

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The pause was, on paper, a relatively toothless moratorium for an industry that already seemed to have more land rights than it needed. With plummeting oil and gas prices in recent years, it seems like the industry doesn’t even necessarily want more access. The Trump administration, the Interior Department noted, conducted a “fire sale” of federal land during their four years in power, offering 25 million acres onshore and 78 million acres offshore for lease; only 5.6 million onshore and 5 million offshore leases were actually purchased.

Even with all these caveats, Biden’s pause on new lease sales really pissed some folks off—namely, Republicans. A group of 14 attorneys general from oil-and-gas-heavy states launched a lawsuit in March in a Louisiana court against the administration challenging the moratorium; a Trump-appointed judge sided with them in June and issued a preliminary injunction, writing that “millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake” with the pause. (Plus the planet, but, you know, money’s cool too, I guess.) The case will still make its way through the court system, so the administration could still win and reinstate the moratorium. But the announcement this week would seem to be the result of the judge’s block at first blush.

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But the move is also notable in that the Biden administration doesn’t necessarily have to keep incessantly offering land for sale to polluters without pauses or changing up the oil and gas leasing program.

The judge’s injunction “didn’t say the Interior Department needed to start leasing again,” said Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice. “What it said was you can’t implement the pause Biden called for in his executive order. It didn’t eliminate any of the Interior Department’s regular discretion over whether it should lease, and how much to lease. There’s a number of federal laws that regulate that process and give Interior the power to cancel a lease sale if it determines that’s necessary. There’s a lot of discretion in the law.”

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Hardy said there are a number of different, perfectly legal options the agency could exercise to put off the lease sales this year, which were initially scheduled by the Trump administration. “It sounds like they’re going beyond what the court is requiring,” Hardy said of the documents the administration filed Tuesday. She added she didn’t have any direct insight as to why they were acting this way, but said a colleague suggested that “disinformation and politics is driving their decision.”

What’s more, Hardy said, there are many reasons to cancel the lease sale in the Gulf the Biden administration signaled it was moving forward with.

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“The [environmental] analysis that has been done for this lease sale is pretty old—it was completed back in 2017, and they haven’t updated it,” she said. “We’ve got all this new climate change information pointing out how much of an emergency it is. There are new species that have been listed as endangered in the Gulf. There are all kinds of new information that they’re required to update before they hold the lease sale. There’s no reason they should be moving forward right now.”

This isn’t the first time the Biden administration has used the courts to justify actions that have helped polluters. In the past eight short months, the administration has frequently gone to bat for fossil fuels interests in court while talking a big climate game to the public. Those actions include upholding a Trump-era decision to drill in the Arctic, suppressing a climate lawsuit brought by young people, refusing to shut down the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, and allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to keep operating. With friends like these, who needs enemies?