Rejecting environmentalists' pleas, Biden administration plows ahead with oil lease auction

Environment groups are slamming the administration for conducting the sale.

November 18, 2021, 6:47 PM

The Biden administration auctioned off large swaths of federally owned waters in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from oil and gas companies eager to begin drilling -- while stoking the ire of environmental groups.

The auction was held less than two weeks after President Joe Biden pushed countries around the world to make collective sacrifices for the sake of the planet at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The timing was not lost on environmental groups, who called for a halt to Wednesday's auction -- and are now slamming the Biden administration for allowing it to happen.

"Today I woke up enraged, but not surprised, that Biden would choose to cater to fossil fuel corporations over our futures," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, an environment-focused political group. "It speaks volumes that days after COP26 ... he is approving major lease sales in the Gulf rather than doing everything in his power to stop extracting more fossil fuels."

Wednesday's auction yielded hundreds of bids from more than 30 oil and gas companies -- including ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron -- who collectively dished out nearly $200 million for drilling rights in 1.7 million acres of the oil-rich Gulf.

Fossil fuel extraction of this type contributes to toxic gas emissions that are responsible for climate change -- a reality at odds with Biden's pledge to halve U.S. emissions by 2030.

PHOTO: A man fishes near docked oil drilling platforms in Port Arkansas, Texas,  May 8, 2020.
A man fishes near docked oil drilling platforms in Port Arkansas, Texas, May 8, 2020. The U.S. Interior Department on Nov. 17, 2021, is auctioning vast oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico estimated to hold up to 1.1 billion barrels of crude. It's the first such sale under President Joe Biden and underscores the challenges he faces to reach climate goals that rely on cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
Eric Gay/AP, FILE

The situation has put Biden administration officials on the defensive. Earlier this week, Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by the University of Chicago and tried to deflect criticism of the auction, describing it as a legal requirement engineered by the Trump administration.

"The fact is, the upcoming oil lease sale ... is part of the legacy system that we're here to reform," he said Monday.

Beaudreau did not directly address a question about why the administration had not done more to prevent the auction from taking place, but instead sought to cast blame on the Trump administration, which initially scheduled the lease sale.

"The administrative process for that lease sale had been completed during the previous administration," Beaudreau said. "It is not the way that we would prefer to do business."

Biden promised to end new drilling on federal lands during his presidential campaign, and in his first week in office he issued an executive order pausing the lease sales, pending a review of their environmental impact.

In June, however, a federal judge ordered the resumption of the lease sales, siding with 13 states that sued the administration for overstepping its authority.

The administration appealed the judge's ruling, but environmental groups say the appeal came too late to impact this lease sale.

Beaudreau said the judge's ruling left the administration "in a situation of, while we are fully committed to reforming the oil and gas program ... we have to deal with the litigation, and we have to deal with the terms that we inherited from the previous administration."

"It's beyond frustrating that the administration is forced choose between two awful options: a massive court-mandated and climate-damaging lease sale or violating a court order and having a cabinet Secretary held in contempt of court," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "We absolutely must accelerate reform of the leasing program."

Other environmental groups were not so satisfied with the administration's explanation.

On Monday, protesters in New Orleans gathered to voice their discontent with the sale. In Washington, D.C., activists projected messages onto the Interior Department building, including "The Gulf is Not For Sale" and "Biden: Keep Your Promise."

Environmental organizations also collected more than 100,000 signatures on a petition calling on Biden to uphold his commitment to ending new leasing for offshore oil and gas, which it planned to share with the administration.

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the administration to prevent the oil leases from taking effect, which the government said will occur on Jan. 1.

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