Trump-Appointed Judge Blocks Biden From Pausing New Oil Drilling Leases

A Trump-appointed federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a temporary pause on new leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters, a decision the Interior Department said it “will comply with” amid warnings about the order’s potentially destructive climate impact.

“The judge’s order turns a blind eye to runaway climate pollution that’s devastating our planet,” Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We’ll keep fighting against the fossil-fuel industry and the politicians that are bought by them.”

Siding with 13 Republican attorneys general who sued over the leasing pause, Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana argued in his ruling that President Joe Biden exceeded his legal powers with a January executive order suspending the Interior Department’s oil and gas leasing program for federal lands and waters.

The order instructed the Interior Department to conduct a comprehensive review of the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, fossil fuels extracted from federal lands and waters are responsible for roughly 25% of the nation’s total carbon emissions.

Spivak argued Tuesday that, contrary to Doughty’s ruling and the argument advanced by Republican state officials in their lawsuit, “the Biden administration clearly has authority to pause and review oil and gas leasing on public lands” without congressional approval.

“This is a deeply dangerous order that heightens the imperative for bold, urgent climate action on our public lands and ocean,” Spivak said of Doughty’s decision.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department, headed by Secretary Deb Haaland, said late Tuesday that the agency is “reviewing the judge’s opinion and will comply with the decision.”

“The Interior Department continues to work on an interim report that will include initial findings on the state of the federal conventional energy programs, as well as outline next steps and recommendations for the department and Congress to improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs, and build a just and equitable energy future,” the spokesperson added.

Doughty’s ruling is a boon for the struggling but still-powerful fossil fuel industry, which fervently opposed the Biden administration’s suspension of oil and gas leasing on public lands. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization that represents oil giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell, said it is “pleased” with Doughty’s decision, which will allow new lease sales to resume for now.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, pointed out in a statement Tuesday that Doughty based his decision “in part on the views of Timothy Considine at the University of Wyoming, the author of an industry-funded report on the purported economic impacts of the leasing pause.”

Doughty claimed in his ruling that “millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake” in the fight over the leasing program.

“Republicans tempted to crow about today’s ruling should explain why they didn’t say a word after President Trump delayed these same lease sales as recently as last August,” Grijalva said. “We need to update our fossil fuel leasing laws across the board to establish a cleaner, more sustainable standard of use for our public resources… Our economic and environmental future shouldn’t be subject to rulings based on industry-funded science or opportunistic complaints that we didn’t hear until President Biden was sworn into office.”

The federal judge’s ruling comes a month after the International Energy Agency issued a report warning that countries across the globe must immediately stop approving new fossil fuel projects if the world is to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

Last week, a coalition of climate organizations sent a letter (pdf) urging the Biden Interior Department to immediately halt all new “oil and gas exploration, drilling, and infrastructure approvals, including seismic operations and rights-of-ways, on public lands and waters.”

“The climate emergency does not allow for half measures,” said Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and lands campaigner with Friends of the Earth, one of the letter’s signatories. “Biden must uphold his promise to address the nearly 25% of U.S. emissions that come from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels from our public lands and waters. Halting all new drilling, including permitting and issuing leases from Trump’s 11th-hour public lands fire sale, is a critical step in making good on that promise.”