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U.S. holds historic oil and gas lease sale in Gulf of Mexico days after climate summit


An oil and gas drilling platform stands offshore as waves churned from Tropical Storm Karen come ashore in Dauphin Island, Alabama, October 5, 2013.

Steve Nesius | Reuters

The Biden administration on Wednesday is opening more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to auction for oil and gas drilling, a record offshore lease sale that will lock in years of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The lease sale is a major reversal of Biden’s commitment to shut down new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and waters and comes just days after the president’s pledge to slash emissions during the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The lease sale has the potential to emit more than 516 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere — the equivalent to annual emissions of 130 coal-fired power plants or 112 million cars, according to the Center of Biological Diversity.

“This administration went to Scotland and told the world that America’s climate leadership is back, and now it’s about to hand over 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico to fossil fuel companies,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement.

The president signed an executive order in January directing the Secretary of the Interior to halt new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and waters and to begin a thorough review of existing permits for fossil fuel development.

But in June, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction to block the administration’s suspension and ordered that plans continue for lease sales that were delayed for the Gulf and Alaska waters.

The U.S. Department of Justice is asking an appeals court to overturn the judge’s order.

Environmental advocacy groups condemned the administration for not taking stronger action to block the injunction and have sued the administration over its decision to hold the sale.

Their lawsuit argues that Interior’s environmental analysis in 2017 regarding the Gulf sale is flawed and neglects new data showing the increasing dangers from pipeline leaks.

“The Biden administration is lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit.”

“This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution, and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast,” Monsell said.

Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the department is complying with the judge’s injunction while the government appeals the decision, and said the agency is “conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before.”

The Biden administration has approved 3,091 new drilling permits on public lands at a rate of 332 per month, a faster pace than the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month.

The permit approvals for fossil fuel production are at odds with Biden’s aggressive climate agenda, including a pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The dichotomy between holding a lease sale and committing to cut back U.S. carbon emissions is glaring,” said Brettny Hardy, an Earthjustice attorney. “By selling these leases, the Biden administration is not solving the oil prices of today, but instead increasing the United States’ climate heating emissions tomorrow.”

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