Every Offshore Drilling Disaster Started with a Lease Sale

It’s hard to believe that after record-breaking oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the Biden Administration is gearing up for a huge offshore oil and gas lease sale. Even amid an onslaught of catastrophic climate change-fueled disasters, the administration plans to move forward with an offshore lease sale of over 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. The Interior Department estimates the lease sale, known as Lease Sale 257, will result in the production of up to 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. 

Lease Sale 257 will hand millions of acres of public ocean over to the oil and gas industry, allowing them to make investments that will lock in our use of dirty, climate change-causing fossil fuels for decades to come. At a moment when we urgently need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to avert the worst impacts of climate change, it is hugely counterproductive to expand offshore leasing.

President Biden came into office pledging to take swift action on climate change. In one of his earliest actions, he put a pause on leasing federal lands and waters for oil and gas production while directing the Department of Interior (DOI) to initiate reforms. But oil-producing states filed a lawsuit challenging the moratorium, and a Trump-appointed federal judge in the Western District of Louisiana found it illegal. Following additional legal threats from the states, the DOI decided to quickly proceed with Lease Sale 257, scheduling it for November 17.

This lease sale will be business as usual. We don’t believe it will include important reforms like toughened environmental or safety safeguards or higher bonding rates. To allow more leasing without fixing our broken leasing system is to court disaster. Hurricane Ida left 55 oil spills in the Gulf in its wake, with oil leaking from platforms, wells and a tangle of abandoned pipelines and infrastructure. Countless communities are still reeling and (literally) picking up the pieces while future cataclysmic storms gather in the Atlantic. The last thing we need is to increase the risks of harm. 

Gulf state politician support for this lease sale isn’t a surprise. The fossil fuel industry has used their outsized influence to build state dependency on oil and gas, making it incredibly difficult to build political desire to end new drilling. Alaska and Louisiana, for example, have tied their state budgets to offshore drilling, creating a dangerous dependency cycle in the form of revenue sharing. While it may be difficult to break this dependency, it is crucial that we move away from fossil fuels. 

For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has benefitted at the expense of people and the planet. Even after discovering the link between carbon emissions and climate change in the 1970s, the fossil fuel industry continued to burn climate change-causing resources while lying to lawmakers and the public in order to build their own political power and block much needed climate policy. As the most recent IPCC report makes clear, what we do, or fail to do, with decisions that have long-term consequences like Lease Sale 257 could determine whether we secure a livable or catastrophic climate. The days of the fossil industry driving our climate and energy policy must come to an end. 

Continuing to offer more offshore oil lease sales is not the path to meeting the Biden Administration’s climate goals. There are three more lease sales left in the current offshore drilling five-year program that ends next summer, two in the Gulf and one in Alaska. DOI should cancel those lease sales and issue a 5-year plan with no planned leases. We cannot afford the climate fallout of continuing to burn fossil fuel: it is past time to end new leasing in federal waters. We need to shift quickly to a renewable energy future, with sustainable jobs, and stop investing in dirty and dangerous offshore drilling. 

About the Authors

Lauren Kubiak

Senior Policy Analyst, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Valerie Cleland

Oceans Advocate, Nature Program

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