Court Takes Industry Bait, Caves to Fossil Fuels

In a disappointing decision, Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled that the Biden administration must end its temporary moratorium on offshore and onshore oil and gas leasing. While difficult to determine the ruling’s practical effect, it’s a step backward for getting the federal government out of the dirty energy business and meaningfully tackling the climate crisis.

Flare burning off waste methane.

Wild Earth Guardians, Flickr

Limiting new oil and gas leasing is consistent with the law and necessary.

Across the United States and off our coastlines, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and its sub-agencies manage more than 450 million acres of lands and 2.5 billion acres of seabed. These landscapes and ocean waters support countless human endeavors, recreational, scientific, or industrial in nature. They also support unique and precious ecosystems. And like these landscapes and ocean waters, their use and usefulness has evolved over time. Whereas they might once have seemed endless in their abundance and space, the pressures of development, extraction, and global warming have drastically  changed these vast areas while altering the ways they can benefit society now and into the future.

But this ruling begs the question: are public lands just industry’s plaything?

They most certainly are not, and this ruling can’t change that fact.

Public lands and waters are managed for the benefit of all, and optimally must be managed to balance environmental and economic concerns. Land managers are tasked with fulfilling a multiple-use mandate that places no particular use of land above others and tasks them with ensuring the resources available to enjoy today are also available for future generations. They also require these areas to protect and enhance environmental quality, ensuring activities pursued on them do not impair their usefulness to future generations. Likewise, the agencies regulating offshore oil and gas drilling must ensure the protection of marine, coastal, and human environments, and cannot prioritize unchecked extraction.

Limiting new oil and gas leasing is an obvious decision that aligns with the fundamental management mandate contained in our public land laws. It is also an action that addresses many of the management failings of the past that have led to numerous legal decisions invalidating oil and gas leases across broad areas.

This ruling will create an absolute mess for industry

There’s no question that oil and gas industry talking heads will be crowing about this ruling for months. But it would behoove them to remember why the Biden administration paused oil and gas leasing in the first place. The system used to lease public lands for fossil fuel development is broken. And it’s not just broken in ways that technical reforms can fix. It’s broken in part because opening up new areas to oil and gas development is 100 percent counter to what science tells us is necessary to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change that business as usual would bring.

This is evident in numerous court rulings invalidating oil and gas leases and other development plans. The most recent ruling suspended all new drilling on 400,000 acres of land spread across Wyoming and Montana. A key basis for that decision was the extent of degradation of wildlife habitat overzealous oil and gas exploitation on public lands has caused, and the fact that further leasing in many could put numerous species in imminent peril. Similarly, In a recent Ninth Circuit ruling, that court invalidated approvals for a major Arctic drilling project, because the agency failed to analyze the effects of increased fossil fuel consumption and prevent impacts to protected species. Other development pressures and climate change are only clarifying this reality, making it abundantly clear that fossil fuel leasing needs to end as quickly as possible to not only limit future production of fossil fuels, but also to avoid further unnecessary impacts to critical onshore and offshore ecosystems.

The decision to lease or not lease public lands and waters rests with DOI

Regardless of the ruling ending the Biden administration’s leasing moratorium, the laws governing oil and gas leasing vest decision-making power with DOI. Where there are numerous conflicts with other uses, where culturally important sites could be harmed, where the survival of species would be undermined—all of these have given rise to DOI determining that areas nominated by industry for leasing should not, in fact, be leased. 

What makes the climate crisis and rising greenhouse gases any different from other environmental conflicts that have stopped leases from being offered? Nothing. Indeed, in a rational world, climate change provides the single best reason not to open up new oil and gas resources anywhere. It is well-documented that oil and gas reserves already in development around the world would lead to emissions that outspend our rapidly declining carbon budget. New leasing just amplifies this problem further and adds to the growing costs that climate change is placing on society annually due to the increasing prevalence of major disasters like wildfire, drought, and dangerous storms.

When we say ending leasing is about climate, we’re talking a whole lot more than emissions

Yes, fossil fuel production on federal public lands can be tied to nearly 25 percent of the United States’ annual greenhouse gas emissions. That’s well documented. But when policy experts point to ending new federal oil and gas leasing as an important policy for addressing climate change, they’re looking way beyond cutting emissions.

That’s because we’re in the midst of an energy transition that is placing numerous pressures on workers, communities, and states that remain economically tied to fossil fuels. Fighting tooth and nail to open new areas to leasing and prolong communities’ economic dependence on fossil resources will only harm them in the long run (and maybe even the short run). Communities of color and low-income communities are already saddled with the injustices that come along with fossil fuel development—including air and water pollution—and more leasing would  continue this trend. What’s more, the states most dependent on fossil fuels have been subject to endless boom and bust economic cycles that are harming their citizens and destabilizing their economies.

Pausing leasing, ending leasing, vastly limiting leasing—you name the action—creates space not only for reforms, but also for shifting our public land use paradigm while creating new jobs. These lands can remain strong economic drivers while also playing a positive role in our battle with climate change. Initiatives endorsed by Congress to begin using appropriate areas for renewable energy generation, for example, would not only accelerate the energy transition, but would also bring new sources of revenue and jobs to local economies. Meanwhile, landscape and ecosystem restoration could create more jobs and vastly improve the carbon storage capacity of our public lands, shifting them from a major source of greenhouse gases to a major sink. Continued preference for oil and gas leasing and drilling achieves none of that.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

Lauren Kubiak

Senior Policy Analyst, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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