President Joe Biden has been touring climate-ravaged areas of America, warning that climate change is a “code red” emergency for the planet. And yet, his administration has continued to boost fossil fuel projects and is now preparing to vastly expand offshore drilling.
The White House argues that a court order it opposes and is appealing requires federal officials to lease more than 78 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel exploration. Environmental groups, however, assert that federal law gives the administration broad discretion over whether or not to hold such sales.
In fact, Biden’s officials have instead used that power to officially declare that the warnings in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report “does not present sufficient cause” to reevaluate the drilling plan.
With the help of the nonprofit public interest organization Earthjustice, several environmental and Gulf groups have now launched a lawsuit against the administration to stop the Gulf lease sale. The complaint argues that the environmental analysis behind the lease sale is based on outdated and arbitrary science, in violation of federal law.
“We’ve been very patient with his administration,” says Hallie Templeton, deputy legal director for Friends of the Earth, one of the environmental groups involved in the litigation. “The honeymoon’s over. It’s now September, they’ve been in office for eight months. It’s time for them to show that they have priorities and are meaningfully going to move in the right direction.”
Undercutting the Message
As Biden last week sounded the climate alarm during a tour of East Coast locales slammed by Hurricane Ida, his own administration was undercutting the message, moving forward with a fossil fuel lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico that began under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Announcement of the lease sale for more drilling arrived on the heels of a sobering new report from the IPCC, which warned of catastrophic weather-related consequences should the world’s powers not radically decarbonize. The report pinned the blame for the crisis squarely on human activity, such as fossil fuel extraction. The UN’s World Meteorological Organization also recently released a study indicating that weather-related natural disasters have increased fivefold over the last four decades.
At a press conference this week, Biden once again acknowledged the costs of climate change, calling for America to “get real” about the problem.
“Extreme weather cost America last year $99 billion,” he said. “And it’s gonna break the record this year; it’s gonna be well over $100 billion.”
“Billions of Dollars at Stake”
Back in January, a week after taking office, Biden issued an executive order pausing “new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters, pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices.” As part of his order, the Secretary of the Interior Department was directed to review existing permits for fossil fuel extraction.
Not long after the order, the administration announced it was canceling the planned lease sales of 78.2 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, before the bidding process was set to begin in March. The administration also canceled the public comment period that was set to lead up to the lease sales of 1 million acres in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Later, the Interior Department also canceled lease sales on public lands in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
In response to Biden’s order, thirteen Republican states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia — sued the administration to restart the leasing program in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and Western states. Wyoming also sued in a separate suit.
The state attorneys general involved in the suit were all members of the fossil fuel–funded Republican Attorneys General Association. Alabama attorney general Steve Marshall is the association’s policy chairman.
In June, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana, Terry Doughty, granted the thirteen states a nationwide preliminary injunction against Biden’s moratorium, directing the leasing program be resumed. Doughty ordered that the administration was specifically barred from implementing the pause with regards to the lease sales in the Gulf and Alaska.
“Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” Doughty wrote.
Following the ruling, the Republican states involved in the lawsuit filed a motion to hold the Interior Department in contempt for refusing to follow the order. The motion sought to compel the department to hold the Gulf of Mexico lease sale.
In response, the administration filed notice that it was appealing the judge’s order, as well as a defiant brief challenging the Republican states’ motion on the grounds that the court order did “not compel Interior to take the actions specified by plaintiffs, let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs’ contempt motion.”
Nevertheless, on September 1, days after filing the brief, the White House posted a new Record of Decision online stating it would be moving forward with the Gulf of Mexico lease sale, and saying that the IPCC report would not change its environmental views on the plan.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report detailing observations of a rapidly changing climate in every region globally, the decision said. “This report does not present sufficient cause to supplement the (environmental impact statement) at this time.”
“Pandering to Both Sides”
Environmental activists say the administration could be taking a tougher stand on drilling on public lands and offshore.
“If the administration’s going to appeal that [order], why not seek a stay to allow them to continue the pause while the appeal is going forward?” Templeton says. “It’s really confusing what’s going on here, it’s like they’re pandering to both sides in a way.”
Even without such a stay, Brettny Hardy, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, says federal law grants the government discretion over whether or not to hold lease sales.
“Initially, the reason that they gave when they canceled the lease sale is that there was a pause from the executive order,” she says. “So they can’t decide to cancel the lease sale because of the pause, because the pause is no longer enforced right now. But they could cancel the lease sale for any number of other reasons, including the fact that they don’t have adequate environmental analysis.”
According to Hardy, the environmental impact statement required for the Gulf lease sale is now out of date because it was completed years ago, before recent advances in attribution science that more closely linked human activity and extreme effects of climate change.
Templeton says the administration’s decision that the dire new IPCC report “does not present sufficient cause” to conduct a new environmental analysis does not make sense.
“Why rely on five-year-old environmental analyses to continue this permitting when the law is clear [that] you’ve got to have updated analysis and rely on the best available science?” she says. “We have science since 2016 showing that climate change is worse than ever and our timeline is not a long one to reverse course.”