As the U.S. Department of Interior this week resumed lease sales for fossil fuel extraction on public lands in several Western states following a year-and-a-half-long pause on onshore auctions, progressive critics warned Thursday that increasing oil and gas drilling will exacerbate the climate emergency while doing nothing to ease pain at the pump for millions of Americans.
“The more public lands sacrificed to Big Oil, the more economic damage, death, and destruction are baked into our future.”
“Selling off more public lands for drilling might help Big Oil, but it won’t lower gas prices and it will worsen climate chaos,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.
“Any oil extracted from leases issued now will have no conceivable effect on today’s gasoline prices,” Weissman continued. “More drilling won’t help in any case, because so much U.S.-drilled oil is now being diverted to export.”
“The pathway to affordable energy,” he added, “involves turning away from fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable power to charge our cars and heat our homes.”
President Joe Biden’s administration is facing a pair of new lawsuits over its resumption of oil and gas leasing on public lands.
The first suit, filed Tuesday by a coalition of 10 environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenges the legality of lease auctions in eight states—Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. These sales, which were scheduled to begin Wednesday and continue Thursday, open up more than 140,000 acres of public land to fossil fuel production.
The second suit, filed Wednesday by the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth, focuses specifically on the largest of these lease sales, held Thursday in Wyoming. In that auction alone, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is offering up nearly 120,000 acres of public property to the highest-bidding oil and gas corporations.
“President Biden’s massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric,” Nicole Ghio, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said Thursday in a statement.
“Fossil fuel extraction on public lands causes nearly a quarter of U.S. climate pollution,” said Ghio. “The more public lands sacrificed to Big Oil, the more economic damage, death, and destruction are baked into our future.”
When the Interior Department said two months ago that it would soon hold the first onshore auction of Biden’s presidency, it announced a “first-ever increase in the royalty rate for new competitive leases to 18.75%,” up from the 12.5% minimum rate required by law.
Although “these lease sales are a disaster,” Weissman said Thursday, “the only sliver of positive news is that the Biden administration is finally forcing oil and gas companies to pay a fair rate for the privilege of exploiting our public lands.”
Last week, Public Citizen released a report detailing how “the federal government has failed to charge the fossil fuel industry a fair price for oil and gas drilling on public lands, allowing 20 major oil companies to escape paying up to $5.8 billion in royalties since 2013.”
Weissman urged the White House to “follow up by making that higher rate permanent and enact rules forcing oil and gas companies to take responsibility for cleaning up their own mess.”
Ghio, however, argued that “minor concessions like raising royalty rates fail to address emissions.”
“To stave off the worst of climate change,” she added, “Biden must keep his promise and end all new leasing on public lands and waters.”
Both lawsuits filed this week contend that the Biden administration’s new lease auctions violate the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws by locking in an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions while failing to address the escalating consequences for public health, local ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.
The Interior Department has argued that it is required to resume lease sales because of a preliminary injunction issued last June by Judge Terry A. Doughty, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who ruled in favor of a group of fossil fuel-funded Republican attorneys general that sued Biden for suspending new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters shortly after taking office.
“To stave off the worst of climate change, Biden must keep his promise and end all new leasing on public lands and waters.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, however, wrote last August that while Doughty’s decision blocks the Biden administration from enforcing its pause, it does not compel BLM to hold new lease sales.
Although the Interior Department has estimated that the social costs of burning oil and gas obtained through drilling and fracking on government-owned parcels range from $630 million to about $7 billion, its long-awaited review of the federal leasing program, published in November, largely ignored the climate crisis.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons.”
Peer-reviewed research, meanwhile, has estimated that a nationwide ban on federal fossil fuel leasing would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year.
The moratorium the White House enacted last January did not affect existing leases. The Biden administration approved 34% more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first year than the Trump administration did in 2017, prompting environmental groups to file a separate lawsuit two weeks ago.
“The staggering social cost of Biden’s latest Big Oil giveaway should be more than enough to stop the administration from proceeding with this sale” in Wyoming, Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth, said Wednesday in a statement.
“The code red climate moment calls for exceptional action,” Templeton stressed, “not business-as-usual behavior allowing the fossil fuel industry to make billions while communities pick up the tab.”
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