After pledging to lead on climate issues, US sells new oil drilling rights

In a move that has led some environmental activists to accuse it of hypocrisy, the Biden administration approved the sale of oil and gas drilling rights to more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico – an act that, according to she, was mandated by a federal court decision.

Wednesday’s auction by an arm of the US Department of the Interior resulted in leases for 1.7 million of the 80 million acres available, with Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. among the main buyers. Some 308 lots were purchased for a total of $191.7 million, although it’s unclear exactly how many of those lots will ultimately be developed.

The decision came just days after the close of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), at which President Joe Biden pledged the United States would “lead by the power of our example” in the effort to achieve a zero-emissions future. .

While some environmental groups accuse the administration of going back on its word, the Biden administration has said it was forced to agree to the sale by a federal court ruling.

FILE – U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a ‘Global Methane Pledge’ event during the United Nations COP26 Climate Summit on November 2, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden announced a moratorium on new leases for oil and gas projects on federal properties. Republican attorneys general in more than a dozen states have filed lawsuits challenging the halt in lease auctions, and in June a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana issued an injunction ordering the Biden administration to resume the sale of drilling rights.

At the time, a spokesperson for the Home Office, which oversees the leasing of public land for energy development, said: “We are reviewing the judge’s advice and will comply with the ruling.”

In 2018, a report by the US Geological Survey estimated that the operations of the fossil fuel industry – that is, the extraction, refining and transportation of fuels, before they are actually used by the consumer – are responsible for approximately 23% of greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. gas emissions The report is frequently cited by environmental groups opposed to leasing public land for energy development.

Wednesday’s auction took place despite an ongoing lawsuit filed in Washington by climate activist group Earthjustice. The lawsuit alleges that an environmental impact study conducted in 2017, which the Biden administration used to justify the auction, was flawed and cannot be relied upon.

Other options available

Brettny Hardy, senior counsel at Earthjustice, told VOA that Biden had several other options to prevent the new leases from being auctioned, but chose not to exercise them.

“The administration keeps saying its hands were tied because of this Louisiana court ruling. But the administration has a ton of discretion under the underlying law that’s at stake here, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.”

She acknowledged that the administration was appealing the district court’s decision, but criticized it for not requesting a stay of the judge’s ruling while the appeal was decided.

Additionally, she said, the administration is aware of the flaws in the environmental impact statement that underpins the lease auction, pointing out that two other courts have already ruled that the emissions model of greenhouse gases used was insufficient. The administration could have used this knowledge to declare the auction illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act.

FILE - A huge oil rig is seen on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2017.

FILE – A huge oil rig is seen on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2017.

Energy industry satisfied

In contrast, the energy industry and its supporters in Washington applauded the move.

In a statement provided to VOA, Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, said: “U.S. oil and natural gas production on land and Federal waters provide the affordable, reliable energy America needs while providing much-needed funds for conservation, education, infrastructure, and other important national and local priorities.

“Notably, U.S. oil and natural gas produced off the Gulf of Mexico coast is also among the lowest barrels of carbon produced in the world, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior analysis that shows emissions from substitutions international markets are more carbon-intensive,” he added.

In a statement, Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group for the offshore energy industry, called on the Biden administration to offer more lease auctions in the future.

“Continued leasing is critical to our energy future; the right decisions today will benefit America tomorrow,” he said, adding that certainty about future leases “will drive climate progress. , will spur continued economic growth, support well-paying jobs across the country, and strengthen our long-term national security.”

Lease extensions

It will take between five and 10 years for actual oil production to begin at new sites, but once a site produces oil, the energy company managing the drilling operation is usually allowed to extend the lease indefinitely.

The Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf, a 160 million acre expanse that includes the areas sold Wednesday, contains about 48 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 141 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy. Management.

A “carbon bomb”

Environmental organizations said this week they remained focused on pressuring the Biden administration to cancel the leases and reimpose the moratorium on additional auctions.

“The Biden administration is lighting the fuse for a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to imagine more dangerous and hypocritical action in the wake of the climate summit,” said Kristen Monsell, chief legal officer. of the oceans at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast,” she said. “Biden has the power to stop this, but instead he’s getting into the fossil fuel industry and making the climate emergency worse.”

Teresa H. Sadler