US judge blocks sale of Gulf of Mexico drilling leases over climate concerns

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A US federal judge has blocked a highly controversial sale of oil and gas drilling leases across 80m acres of the Gulf of Mexico, ruling that Joe Biden’s administration did not properly consider the leases’ impact upon the climate crisis.

US judge blocks sale of Gulf of Mexico drilling leases over climate concerns
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Lee Celano/Reuters

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The decision, handed down by the DC court late on Thursday, represents a landmark victory for environmental groups that had sued the government to prevent what was the largest ever auction of oil and gas leases in the gulf’s history.

“I’m thrilled the court saw through the Biden administration’s horribly reckless decision to hold the largest oil lease sale in US history without carefully studying the risks,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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“New oil leases are fundamentally incompatible with addressing the climate emergency, and they’ll cause more oil spills and harm to wildlife and people in the gulf.”

Rudolph Contreras, a US district court judge for the District of Columbia, was critical of federal government agencies for their environmental analyses that led to the lease sale, writing that they were guilty of a “serious failing” and a “grave error”. He ordered that the new leases be vacated and for the department of interior to conduct a new analysis that accounts for the planet-heating gases that would result if the drilling went ahead.

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The lease sale was held in November, just days after UN climate talks in Scotland in which the president vowed the US would “lead by example” in tackling the climate crisis. Biden had previously promised to shut down all new oil and gas drilling to curb emissions of planet-heating gases.

The administration had claimed that it was compelled to hold the sale due to a successful legal challenge by a dozen states to lift a blanket pause Biden had placed on new drilling projects on federal land and waters. The Gulf of Mexico auction eventually resulted in 1.7m acres sold off to oil firms including Exxon, Chevron and BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

A previous Department of Justice memo, however, showed that the federal government did not believe it was obligated to hold the sale and climate activists have said the episode shows Biden is not sufficiently committed to averting the climate crisis. The International Energy Agency has said that there can be no new major fossil fuel projects if the world is to avoid disastrous global heating.

Even some of Biden’s allies have been sharply critical of the lease sale, with three Congressional Democrats filing a court brief in support of the environment groups.

“These leases were a climate disaster waiting to happen,” said Raul Grijalva, one of the three lawmakers and chair of the House natural resources committee. “This decision is a welcome chance to reset our federal fossil fuel leasing policies and limit carbon emissions while there is still time to prevent the most disastrous outcomes of climate change.”

A spokeswoman for the interior department said the government will review the judge’s decision, adding that “long overdue programmatic reforms” needed to be made in the management of oil and gas drilling across public lands and waters. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby group, said the decision was “disappointing” and that it will review its legal options.

Contreras’ ruling found that the government had relied upon an outdated and flawed environmental assessment from the Trump administration that claimed that greenhouse gases would actually increase if the lease sale did not go ahead, due to a reliance on foreign oil and gas supplies.

The interior department had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously in excluding foreign consumption from their greenhouse gas emissions” contrary to requirements under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, Contreras wrote.

Environmental groups involved in the case called on Biden to now halt all future drilling. “The Biden administration’s failure to adequately evaluate the climate impacts of this massive lease sale wasn’t just out of step with their stated commitment to climate action, it was also illegal,” said Devorah Ancel, senior attorney at the Sierra Club.

“We are glad that the court has held them accountable for this reckless action, and we will continue to fight to protect Gulf coast communities from the dangers of offshore drilling and climate chaos.”

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