It’s Time to Make Offshore Energy Fossil Fuel-Free

A federal court yesterday halted the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. This positions 2022 as the year the Biden administration can set us on a course for a fossil fuel-free ocean.

People fishing in the Gulf of Mexico from a pier in Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A federal court yesterday halted the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. This is a major win for Gulf communities and the climate, and positions 2022 as the year the Biden administration can set us on a course for a fossil fuel-free ocean and brighter energy future.


The biggest opportunity will be in the coming months when the Department of Interior proposes its ocean oil and gas drilling program for the next five years. Interior’s Five-Year Program must not include new proposed lease sales, if the nation and the global community have any chance of solving the climate crisis.

In yesterday’s ruling, the District Court for the District of Columbia vacated Lease Sale 257, which had offered up 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. The court found BOEM’s analysis of environmental impacts faulty and remanded the matter back to the agency. Specifically, the court found that BOEM failed to accurately analyze the effects of the lease sale on global greenhouse gas emissions and relied on flawed modeling. The court also recognized that the Gulf of Mexico is a “unique and important part of the American landscape and economy,” and that it supports a biologically diverse ecosystem, and produces over a third of the nation’s seafood supply. It barred oil exploration or drilling in the lease sale area until BOEM corrects the flaws in its environmental impact statement. 

The administration held Lease Sale 257, which was proposed on the current Five-Year Program’s schedule, after a Louisiana federal district court order last summer, which prevented the administration from implementing its pause on new oil and gas leasing. The Department of Interior had alternative grounds for delaying, cancelling, or modifying scheduled lease sales like Lease Sale 257—including taking the time to revise the flawed and very outdated environmental analysis underlying the lease sale. Nevertheless, the agency decided to move forward with scheduled offshore oil and gas lease sales, including Lease Sale 257 and another sale, Lease Sale 258, in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

The coming year provides the following crucial opportunities for the administration to support the transition away from fossil fuels and foster the green economy.

First, the Biden Administration must fully revamp its environmental analysis to account for its catastrophic impacts on the climate and highly-vulnerable communities in the Gulf of Mexico, and cancel Lease Sale 257. As my colleagues have written, we are perilously close to emissions levels that will lock in continued global warming. A new Five-Year Program with new leases means committing to drilling into the 2030s and beyond, which conflicts with this Administration's net zero commitments. Huge portions of the Gulf of Mexico are already leased. And that’s enough to provide undiminished oil and gas supply for years to come. At the same time, as we’ve written in a recent comment letter, the country’s fossil fuel demand will actually steadily decrease due to legally-mandated transportation and utility-sector policies, as well as other efficiency policies. As we point out in the same letter, the country is already a net exporter of fossil fuels. The time for reform is now. Additional new leases, which are difficult to cancel or modify once issued, are unnecessary and would be dangerous both to climate and to coastal communities.


Cook Inlet, Alaska

Credit: Michael Jones/MediaBakery

Second, the Biden Administration must cancel Lease Sale 258, in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The sale would offer up over a million acres of unique offshore habitat for decades of oil and gas development. Late last year, NRDC and coalition partners filed a comment letter critiquing the flaws in BOEM’s draft environmental impact statement and calling for cancellation of the sale. The flaws include: failing to fully evaluate oil pollution and other risks to threatened and endangered species, like the critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale; failing to comprehensively consider the climate risks from further oil development; and failing to consider impacts to valuable commercial fisheries and a thriving tourist industry. BOEM has also failed to consult with all the Alaskan tribal groups who depend on a healthy ocean for sustenance. NRDC and our partners are monitoring developments with the sale, and stand ready to hold BOEM accountable if it fails to follow the law.

Two more sales are slated to take place in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM should cancel these sales.

Finally and most critically, the Interior Department’s next Five-Year Program, which sets forth a schedule for selling off leases to develop offshore oil and gas reserves, must commit to no new fossil fuel development in the ocean.

As my colleague Sarah Chasis and I have previously written, BOEM has the authority to take this action. The agency is bound by the law to administer the offshore oil and gas leasing process in manner that protects the public lands and waters, as well as local communities. It need not prioritize extraction and has considerable discretion to shape the offshore leasing program to protect the environment and mitigate the climate crisis. BOEM has used this discretion in the past to scrap individual lease sales, and could just as readily use its authority to create a Five-Year Program that does not greenlight any new oil and gas development.

As we move into a new year, with the opportunity to take bold and necessary climate action, we urge the Biden administration to do the right thing for our global health and environment and for our highly-vulnerable coastal communities by cancelling remaining proposed lease sales and developing a Five-Year Program with no new leases.

This blog provides general information and not legal advice. If you need legal assistance, please consult a lawyer in your state.


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