CLIMATE CHANGE - As the Biden administration moved ahead Wednesday with an auction of more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas companies—the largest-ever sale of fossil fuel drilling leases in the Gulf—climate action groups and legal experts said the Interior Department's actions were legally dubious as well as being "dangerous" and "hypocritical."
The auction began just four days after the conclusion of the United National Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, where President Joe Biden pledged to "lead by example" as countries around the world committed to drawing down fossil fuel emissions.
"This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution, and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast."
"Biden can't be the climate president when he is actively selling our water to the highest bidder and lobbying oil states to produce more fossil fuels," said Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. "It speaks volumes that days after COP26, and only months after the IPCC issued a 'code red for humanity,' he is approving major lease sales in the Gulf rather than doing everything in his power to stop extracting more fossil fuels and pass Build Back Better to meet his emissions goals and advance environmental justice."
"Biden's actions are a slap in the face to us—the young people who will have to live with the repercussions of the climate crisis," Prakash added.
The president has already faced harsh criticism from climate action campaigners for refusing to support a pledge to phase out coal-fired power plants or join countries including Denmark and Costa Rica in the ambitious Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
The lease sale has raised more questions about how the Biden administration can claim a leadership role in combating the climate emergency, as the auction could sell leases for as many as 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 2.2 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to The Guardian, combined with a separate lease sale in Alaska, Biden's Interior Department may enable oil and gas companies to emit nearly 600 million tons of greenhouse gases in the next four decades—months after the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that fossil fuel extraction must end this year in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
"This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution, and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast," said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Biden has the authority to stop this, but instead he's casting his lot in with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency."
After taking office earlier this year, Biden signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on gas and oil lease sales in public lands and waters. The move was challenged in court by several states and in June, a federal judge in Louisiana sided with the states.
Contrary to the White House's claims, however, critics say the ruling does not mean the White House has to go through with the unprecedented sale in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The White House has always had several other legal avenues it could pursue if it chose to do so," said Mitch Jones, policy director for Food and Water Watch. "Not only has the White House refused to do so, it has gone so far as to argue that the decades of new drilling unleashed by this move would have no effect on the climate crisis."
Postponing the sale would likely result in a lawsuit from oil and gas companies, New York University School of Law attorney Max Sarinsky told The Guardian Wednesday, but "the Louisiana opinion doesn't force the administration to move forward with any particular lease sale—the Department of Interior still has discretion over that."
Environmental law organization Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit in August on behalf of several climate action groups, arguing the Biden administration is relying on flawed analysis—which does not take into account the dangers of pipeline leaks, among other factors—to allow the sale to go forward.
"The dichotomy between holding a lease sale and committing to cut back U.S. carbon emissions is glaring," said Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice. "The administration is violating the law by moving forward with the sale based on incorrect data that does not properly reflect the impact that giving more land to industry for oil production would have on the Gulf of Mexico, the surrounding ecosystems, and our planet."
Earthjustice is hoping the court hands down a ruling in its favor before the leases go into effect, which will be in January at the earliest.
(Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this story was first published.).