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Law Requires Biden To Cancel Oil Lease Sale To Prevent Climate Harm

Above Photo: A Marathon Oil well site in Texas. Jennifer Hiller / Reuters.

Washington — Conservation groups submitted formal comments today urging cancelation of February’s federal oil and gas lease auctions, saying the Biden administration is legally required to prevent harm from the leasing program’s greenhouse gas emissions, not just disclose it.

“The Biden administration must do more than simply talk about climate change, it has a duty to take action on a scale and with a sense of urgency that the climate crisis demands,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and Climate & Energy Program director with Western Environmental Law Center. “The ongoing sale and development of federal oil and gas is not only inconsistent with climate science, but a breach of the moral obligation we have to current and future generations.”

The groups say the U.S. Bureau of Land Management must stop public lands oil and gas lease sales to prevent further harm to the climate, land, water, endangered species and public health. They called for a program-wide environmental analysis to bring an orderly end to federal fossil fuel extraction, which causes nearly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.

“Candidate Biden promised to ban new oil and gas extraction on federal lands and waters, but his administration has been doing the exact opposite,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director for Waterkeeper Alliance. “It is nonsensical to claim that stopping catastrophic climate change is a key priority while regularly leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands and waters to fossil fuel companies. We again call on the president to keep his promises, and for his administration’s deeds to match its climate messaging.”

Today’s filing covers proposed lease sales spanning more than 300,000 acres of public lands in nine states, most of it in Wyoming and Colorado. The upcoming auctions follow a judge’s June reversal of Biden’s leasing pause and the administration’s controversial review of the federal oil and gas programs that ignored climate harms.

“There’s no question that pollution from federal fossil fuels is driving the climate and extinction crises, and Biden has legal and moral obligations to prevent rather than worsen that harm,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time for the Biden administration to heed science and abandon its parade of climate failures by phasing out federal fossil fuels.”

The Federal Land Policy Management Act prohibits the BLM from harming the climate, plants or animals, among other things. The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to prevent harm to climate-endangered species like polar bears, razorback suckers and corals.

“It’s time for a wholesale revamping of the oil and gas leasing program at the Bureau of Land Management, and that process should start with a programmatic environmental analysis of the entire leasing program, said Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The American public deserves a full and comprehensive evaluation of the damage we are unleashing on our climate by continuing to lease public lands for fossil fuel development.”

The administration has approved more than 3,370 new drilling permits on public lands at a rate of 334 per month, outpacing the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018-2020.

“Climate change leadership starts with courageous action at home,” said Matt Nykiel, a program attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “Biden can’t lead the world in preventing catastrophic climate change with BLM giving away 300k acres of public land to the oil and gas industry on his watch.”

At November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, Biden called climate change “the challenge of our collective lifetimes, an existential threat to human existence as we know it. And every day we delay the cost of inaction increases.” He pledged that the United States would cut emissions by up to 51% over the next nine years.

“The law is crystal clear. President Biden’s administration is obligated to mitigate harms from fossil fuel development,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Coupled with this obligation is its authority to suspend oil and gas lease sales for inadequate environmental reviews. We call on Biden to fulfill federal mandates as well as his promises to prevent climate disaster by stopping these auctions.”

Days after the summit, the administration offered up 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing.

“The West is drying up. For each degree of Celsius of warming we know the Colorado River shrinks 10%. We are in the nation’s climate hotspot, disproportionately impacted by climate change, having warmed double the global average, more than 2 degrees Celsius. The Colorado River, which supports seven states has declined 19% in the last 22 years,” said Natasha Léger, executive director at Citizens for a Healthy Community in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. “This lease sale is an afront to the West and any semblance of rhetoric in averting a climate catastrophe.”

In April more than 200 groups filed comments with the administration, demanding a formal climate review of the federal fossil fuel programs under the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Lands Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws.

In January 574 climate, conservation, Indigenous, religious and business groups sent Biden text for a proposed executive order that would use the full force of environmental laws to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting.

Background

Renewed IPCC warnings and several analyses have shown that climate pollution from the world’s already-producing oil, gas and coal developments would push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. An analysis by the International Energy Agency shows that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects.

Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate policy proposals in recent years.

Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroys habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have done immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.

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.

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