The Biden administration is preparing to auction off more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling companies less than a week after the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where global negotiations over plans to reduce fossil fuel emissions faced an official deadline on Friday.
The annual Gulf of Mexico lease sale planned for November 17 in New Orleans is the largest federal offshore drilling auction in United States history and comes just months after Hurricane Ida unleashed dozens of oil spills and petrochemical leaks from aging fossil fuel infrastructure near the Louisiana coast. On October 1, a ruptured underwater pipeline off the coast of California spilled an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil across ocean waters and beaches, the latest disaster to raise fears about the dangers of offshore drilling.
More than 250 environmental, social justice and Indigenous groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday with an “urgent plea” to cancel the lease sale as the U.S. and other major polluters hammer out their latest pledges at the UN climate conference. Fossil fuels produced in the Gulf would contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis, environmentalists say, and feed onshore refineries and petrochemical plants that pollute low-income communities and neighborhoods of color.
“The Gulf of Mexico continues to be treated as a sacrificial zone to oil and gas development, disproportionately harming local communities already at the frontlines of climate disaster, wreaking havoc on the environment, and contributing to global climate change,” the groups wrote in the letter. “The region’s communities are frontline Black, Indigenous and people of color and low-income families who have been living with degraded air, land, and water for decades.”
After campaigning on a pledge to ban new oil and gas leases on public lands and ocean waters, President Biden in January issued an executive order placing a moratorium on new federal leases while his administration conducts an environmental review that has yet to materialize. The moratorium was expected to have little immediate impact on drilling companies, which have already secured leases and permits to drill on public lands and waters for years to come. Still, Louisiana and a dozen other fossil fuel-producing states filed suit, and in June a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the “pause” on leasing.
The Biden administration is appealing the decision, but the Department of Interior is moving ahead with plans to lease 734,000 acres of public lands in western states and millions of acres across the Gulf despite objections filed by environmental groups. John Filostrat, a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), said the federal agency is conducting the Gulf of Mexico lease sale in compliance with the court order.
BOEM and Interior Department agencies collect revenue from the leases they sell and royalties from the oil and gas produced as private drilling companies develop vast swaths of the Gulf and prairie lands from West Texas to the Dakotas. For more than a decade, the Government Accountability Office has flagged federal leasing programs as “vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement, or in need of transformation.” Interior Department officials say they “continue review the programs’ noted shortcomings.”
“The Biden-Harris Administration is continuing its comprehensive review of the deficiencies associated with its offshore and onshore oil and gas leasing programs,” Filostrat said in an email.
About 26 million federal acres of the country were under a federal fossil fuel lease in 2018, and that does not include the Gulf of Mexico, where hundreds of drilling platforms dot the horizon from Texas to Alabama. Since 2017, offshore leasing in the Gulf has generated more than $1 trillion in federal revenues.
Fossil fuels produced from public lands and waters are responsible for about 24 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., according to federal researchers. If oil and gas leasing on public lands came to a halt, researchers estimate that carbon dioxide emissions would fall by 280 million tons by 2030, a sizeable reduction compared to other proposed climate policies.
After the federal court injunction blocked Biden’s “pause” on new leases, BOEM’s offshore regulators announced on August 31 that they would move forward with the Gulf lease sale. Hurricane Ida had just swept across Louisiana, “wreaking havoc on the same frontline communities” the Biden administration “committed to help heal by stopping the deep-rooted injustices perpetrated by the oil and gas industry and helping build clean, sustainable local economies,” according to the letter from environmental and Indigenous groups.
Environmental attorneys quickly filed a lawsuit, arguing the analysis used by federal regulators to estimate the environmental impacts of the lease sale is outdated and insufficient.
Developed in 2016 and 2017, this legally-required Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges some ecological impacts but estimates that the greenhouse gases from fossil fuels produced under new drilling leases in the Gulf — projected to be as high as 1.12 billion barrels of crude oil and 4.4. trillion cubic feet of gas — would not contribute to climate change. Regulators argue oil and gas would still be imported and burned if not produced in the Gulf, but environmentalists say their analysis is flawed, and new leases would lock in fossil fuel production for decades even as the world turns to alternatives.
Kristen Monsell, an oceans defense attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said advances in climate science in recent years tell us that burning this amount of oil and gas will absolutely contribute to the climate crisis. Widespread and rapid reduction in emissions is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold first championed by the Alliance of Small Island States that has guided international climate negotiations but appears increasingly out of reach.
“A slew of new information demonstrates that those old analyses don’t adequately consider just how risky continued oil and gas activity actually is, and a federal appeals court has held the greenhouse gas analysis the administration is relying on fails to properly consider the impacts of more leasing on the climate crisis,” Monsell told Truthout in an email.
Monsell said the court order blocking Biden’s moratorium on new leasing does not “compel” offshore regulators to hold the lease sale for the Gulf of Mexico. At the very least, regulators could postpone the offshore drilling auction and update the environmental impact review that advocates have challenged in court, according to a brief the groups filed with the Interior Department.
“The administration has more than sufficient authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to cancel this lease sale,” Monsell said. “It’s incredibly disappointing to see them not doing so and instead casting their lot with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency.”
The Biden administration has committed to cutting U.S. emissions by 50 percent under 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, but the proposal to stop the leasing public lands and waters to private drilling companies appears to have fallen to the wayside in the face of stiff opposition from the fossil fuel lobby.
Instead, the administration is focusing on new methane regulations and investments in cleaner technology and renewable energy, along with updates to infrastructure included in two bills Democrats are pushing through Congress. Biden is expected to sign the first package on Monday, which passed with support from a handful of Republicans. Climate advocates say the legislation will not result in serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and are urging Democrats to pass their broader spending package with a ban on offshore drilling for the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.