“The Biden administration’s official position is that they were forced to conduct this sale by the court,” said one activist. “But we’ve done our homework and we know that is not true.”
When the Biden administration first announced in August that it would soon hold a massive auction of oil and gas drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico, officials told angry critics that they had no choice but to proceed with the historic—and ecologically catastrophic—sale because of a ruling by a Trump-appointed federal judge.
“We don’t know… why the administration went ahead with this sale.”
Prior to that, however, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) argued—in a memo shared Monday by The Guardian—that the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) was not required to sell new leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters despite a court decision challenging the implementation of President Joe Biden’s moratorium.
Environmental lawyers had long made the same case. Now equipped with evidence that Biden ignored the DOJ’s legal advice, a coalition of progressive groups—Food & Water Watch, Earth Uprising International, One Up Action, and Action Center on Race and the Economy—has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records related to the White House’s decision to commence Lease Sale 257, which saw more than 80 million acres of federal waters offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas companies.
According to The Guardian, “The auction, held on November 17, ended up netting the government $191.6 million from companies such as Exxon, Chevron, and BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. A total of 308 tracts of the gulf’s seabed were sold off, covering 1.7 million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware.”
Thomas Meyer, national organizing manager at Food & Water Watch, said Monday in a statement that “we know this action has already disillusioned many Democratic voters who were counting on serious climate action from the Biden administration.”
“What we don’t know,” said Meyer, “is why the administration went ahead with this sale without the required environmental review when it clearly knew it wasn’t compelled to do so.”
The FOIA request was submitted to the DOI and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in an effort to obtain “any and all communications related to the lease sale” between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, DOI and BOEM officials, White House officials including Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy David Hayes, members of Congress and their staff, and the fossil fuel industry.
In the memorandum of opposition filed by the DOJ in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana on August 24, U.S. government lawyers wrote that while Judge Terry A. Doughty’s June 15 order “enjoins and restrains Interior from implementing the pause, it does not compel Interior to take the actions specified by plaintiffs, let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs’ contempt motion.”
Doughty’s preliminary injunction came in response to a lawsuit filed in March by a group of Republican attorneys general opposed to Biden’s January executive order suspending new oil and gas leasing. The president’s pause of the federal leasing program was meant to give his administration time to conduct a comprehensive review of the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.”
Although the Biden administration has “acknowledged that it has many other legal mechanisms to prohibit new oil and gas leasing aside from” the disputed moratorium, Food & Water Watch explained Monday, it “quickly backed down” following the federal court’s ruling, “claiming that its hands were tied.”
According to the DOJ’s August 24 memo, federal law requires the DOI to take additional steps before issuing new drilling permits, and “the court’s order does not compel the agency to act in contravention of these other authorities.”
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