The Biden administration has pledged to make climate change a top priority. But on Wednesday morning, it held the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history. Wait, what?
The auction, which began at 10 a.m. Eastern Time and was live-streamed from New Orleans, opened over 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel drilling. That’s an area larger than the entirety of New Mexico.
Wednesday’s sale was the first one held under Biden, but it’s part of an oil and gas program first developed and approved under Trump.
The sale comes just days after the conclusion of the international climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP26, where White House officials attempted to position the nation as a climate leader and distinguish themselves from the Trump administration.
“The United States took [the conference] seriously, as we should, after the previous administration was absent during their time in the White House,” US climate envoy John F. Kerry said of the climate crisis at a Glasgow closing plenary.
Activists say moving forward with the leasing calls into question the administration’s commitment to climate action.
“This morning was met with extreme disappointment, depleted hope, and shattered trust,” Hallie Templeton, legal director at the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, said in an emailed statement.
Over the next several decades, the Department of the Interior estimates the new leases will allow the energy industry to drill 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
”Burning this amount of oil and gas would result in more than 516 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to 112 million cars or 130 coal-fired power plants operating for a year,” said Templeton. Another analysis estimates the toll will be even higher.
Once the leases are sold, it could take years for developers to actually begin drilling. That means they could keep pumping long after the decade’s end, despite leading climate scientists’ warnings that by 2030, the world should be well on its way to phasing out fossil fuels.
The administration says it’s holding the sale because it didn’t have much choice. Upon taking the White House in January, Biden signed an executive order that temporarily halted the auctioning of new oil and gas leases for federally-owned lands and oceans, but 13 states, led by Louisiana, sued. In June, a federal judge ruled in their favor, claiming Biden’s order was an overreach. The White House says the lease sale is a way to respect that order.
On Tuesday evening, the Interior Department filed an appeal of the June ruling in the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
“Existing federal law provides the Department of the Interior broad discretion over onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing,” the appeal says.
Still, for now, “the Department is complying with a US District Court’s decision,” Melissa Schwartz, communications director at the Department of the Interior, wrote in an e-mail.
Some experts say there’s no reason that the administration had to hold the auction. Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice, said doing so goes beyond what the court is requiring. “The Louisiana order does not mandate that Interior hold this lease sale—it just forbids Interior from implementing a more general ‘pause on leasing,” she said. “Nor does the order say Interior must hold the sale if doing so would violate other statutes – like the National Environmental Policy Act.”
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, every oil and gas auction must go through an environmental review. The one for Wednesday morning’s auction was conducted in 2017, and does not account for the lease sale’s effect on the climate. On this basis, Earthjustice sued the Department of Interior and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in September in an attempt to block the Gulf auction, alleging that the environmental review was faulty.
If Interior wanted to, Hardy said, it could have refused to hold the sale based on a similar argument, declaring the sale illegal due to a lack of understanding of its climate impact. She added that it also could have invoked its authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to withdraw federal lands and oceans from leasing—an authority the Obama administration used 2016.
Jane Patton, a campaigner with the Center for International Environmental Law, said that the decision to have the lease sale goes against the Interior department’s legal obligations to protect public safety and the environment in its administration of oil and gas lease sales.
“I don’t understand why the Administration is hiding behind the order of one judge while that decision is under appeal and the law grants the Secretary of the Interior all the authority needed to stop this,” she said “Frankly, I’m enraged.”