A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
The Biden administration plans to appeal a federal court decision forcing the government to restart oil and gas leases that have been paused since January.
But administration officials are also promising to comply in a way that takes into account the damage caused by fossil fuel development.
The two-part move worries progressive activists and members of Congress, who have urged President Joe Biden to permanently shut down the federal oil and gas leasing program because of its contributions to climate change.
In addition, the oil and gas industry is questioning whether there’s any intent by the government to fall in line with the court ruling, since lease sales have not been scheduled.
The reactions came after the Interior Department said Monday it would comply with U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty’s June 16 ruling to reinstate the oil and gas leasing program while the appeal is pending.
But the department reserved the right to “to conduct leasing in a manner that takes into account the program’s many deficiencies,” including its impact on climate change.
An Interior spokeswoman declined to elaborate Tuesday on what the department’s compliance would mean in practice.
Biden paused oil and gas leases on federal lands in a Jan. 27 executive order that also called for a comprehensive review of the program. Lease sale auctions are generally held quarterly.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, and 12 other Republican attorneys general, including those in Georgia, Missouri and Montana, sued earlier this year to stop the pause. In an interim step, Doughty ruled in favor of the states and issued an injunction forcing the federal government to resume lease sales.
Interior said immediately following the ruling it would comply with it, but has not announced any new lease sales.
Monday, the department again said it would comply, but added several criticisms of the oil and gas leasing program, including that it has failed to account for contributions to climate change.
The statement’s emphasis on the program’s faults led some conservation activists to believe that the Biden Interior Department would approve fewer leases or otherwise curb what they see as the program’s excesses in previous administrations.
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the liberal-leaning conservation group Western Environmental Law Center, said the Interior Department has the authority to review oil and gas development on public lands at several stages.
The Bureau of Land Management can review and amend resource management plans that stipulate how areas covering several million acres can be developed, Schlenker-Goodrich said.
It can also decide not to offer any particular parcel for leasing at all. If and when a parcel is leased to an energy developer and when the developer makes plans to drill, the agency retains fairly wide discretion to shape where and how that drilling can be done.
The administration’s criticism of how the oil and gas program has operated could indicate officials intend to use at least some of those powers to significantly slow development, he said.
“Given the litany of chronic, systemic problems with the federal oil and gas program Interior very noticeably identified and emphasized yesterday, in particular regarding the climate crisis, I think it’s safe to expect that we will not see a resumption of leasing anywhere close to the level or magnitude of the Trump or Obama eras,” he said.
House leader displeased
About one-quarter of fossil fuel emissions come from oil and gas developed on federal public lands, the U.S. Geological Survey found in a 2018 report.
If leases are to resume, Interior should have at least changed some parts of how they operate, House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva said in a statement. The administration has had since January to ponder how it would change the program.
“Holding more lease sales under today’s outdated standards is economically wasteful and environmentally destructive, and everyone not sitting in a fossil fuel boardroom knows it,” the Arizona Democrat said.
“If new lease sales are going [to] occur, the country should be able to benefit from the reforms the administration has been studying since it rightly announced its leasing pause earlier this year.”
Grijalva added that he would try and overhaul the program through the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill Congress is expected to consider this fall.
Doughty’s ruling may have forced the administration’s hand to resume lease sales, but the administration could have avoided the most damaging parts of the order by adopting reforms at the same time, Angelyn Tabalba, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Conservation League, said.
“DOI could have taken this opportunity to reform the oil and gas program while still complying with the order, but is instead complying without doing anything immediately,” Tabalba wrote in an email. “They’re still studying potential reforms while allowing leasing to continue, and operating under a broken system that fails communities and taxpayers.”
Oil and gas questioning compliance
Despite pledging to comply with Doughty’s order two months ago, the federal government has not scheduled any lease sales.
Federal law requires 45 days’ notice for a lease sale, meaning that Monday was the last date the government could notice a sale for the third quarter of 2021.
“Now that the Interior Department has missed the deadline to hold any sales before October, it’s crystal clear there is no intention of complying with the judge’s order,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, said in a statement.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told a Senate panel last month that “technically, I guess you can say the pause is still in place” because no leases have been issued.
“However, we are complying with the court order, to move forward on releasing the report, and moving this issue forward,” she said.
The attorneys general last week asked Doughty to hold Interior in contempt for not complying with the order to resume leases. The federal government has until Aug. 24 to respond.
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