WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal court has thrown out a plan to lease millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore oil drilling, saying the Biden administration failed to give sufficient consideration to the effect of the sale. lease on greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, violating a fundamental environmental law.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras’ decision in Washington on Thursday refers the proposed lease sale back to the Department of the Interior to decide on next steps. The judge said it was up to the Interior to decide whether to proceed with the sale after a revised review, abandon it or take other action.
Environmental groups hailed the decision and said the ruling gave President Joe Biden a chance to follow through on a campaign promise to stop offshore leasing in federal waters. The decision came on the one-year anniversary of a federal moratorium on leases that Biden ordered as part of his climate change efforts.
“We are pleased that the court has struck down Interior’s illegal lease sale,” said Brettny Hardy, lead attorney for Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that challenged the sale.
“This administration must meet this critical moment and honor President Biden’s campaign promises to halt offshore leasing once and for all,” Hardy added. “We simply cannot continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry at the risk of our communities and the increasingly warming planet.”
A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the agency is reviewing the decision.
The administration was “forced to proceed with the 257 lease sale” following a court ruling in Louisiana, spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said.
Interior has “documented serious flaws in the federal oil and gas program,” Schwartz said, and Haaland recommended an overhaul of the state oil and gas leasing program to limit areas available for energy development. and increase the costs for energy companies to drill on the public. land and water.
“Especially in the face of the climate crisis, we need to take the time to make important and long overdue programmatic reforms,” Schwartz said. “Our public lands and waters must be protected for future generations. »
Energy companies such as Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil in November offered $192 million for rights to drill federal oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Interior Department auction came after Republican-led state attorneys general Louisiana successfully challenged a suspension of sales imposed by Biden when he took office.
The companies bid on 308 plots totaling nearly 2,700 square miles (6,950 square kilometers). It was the largest acreage and second-highest bid total since Gulf-wide auctions resumed in 2017.
The auction came even as Biden tried to persuade other world leaders to step up their efforts against global warming, including at the United Nations climate talks in Scotland in early November. While Biden has taken a number of actions on climate change, he has faced resistance in Congress, and a sweeping $2 trillion social and environmental spending program remains stalled. The so-called “Build Back Better” plan contains $550 billion in spending and tax credits aimed at promoting clean energy.
In its 68-page ruling, Contreras said the Interior failed to account for the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from selling the lease, violating the National Environmental Policy Act, a basic environmental law.
“Going full speed with blinkers on just wasn’t a reasonable step BOEM would have taken here,” he said, referring to the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Environmental reviews of the lease auction – conducted under former President Donald Trump and upheld under Biden – came to the unlikely conclusion that extracting and burning more oil and gas from the Gulf would result in less damage. climate change emissions than leaving it.
Similar claims in two other cases, in Alaska, were thrown out in federal courts after challenges from environmentalists.
Federal officials have since changed their emissions modeling methods, but said it was too late to use that approach for the November auction.
The National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore industry, criticized the decision and called U.S. oil and gas production crucial to curbing inflation and bolstering national security.
“The offshore region of the United States is vital to American energy security, and continued leases are critical to sustaining energy from this strategic national asset,” said Erik Milito, group president. “Uncertainty around the future of the U.S. federal offshore leasing program” would benefit Russia and other adversaries, he said.
The administration has proposed another round of oil and gas sales in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and other states. Interior Department officials continued despite concluding that burning the fuels could result in billions of dollars in potential climate damage.
Emissions from burning and extracting fossil fuels from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to the US Geological Survey.
A report released by Haaland in November did not recommend ending oil and gas leasing on public lands, as many environmental groups have called for. But officials said the report would lead to a more responsible leasing process that provides a better return for U.S. taxpayers.
Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana contributed to this story.
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