Gulf Groups React to American Petroleum Institute Lawsuit Seeking to Maximize Drilling

Kristen Schlemmer
February 13, 2024

As the oil industry pursues a max-out strategy for fossil fuel development in Gulf with a new legal challenge, advocates flag serious climate, public health, and environmental concerns 

WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, the American Petroleum Institute filed a case challenging the Interior Department’s Five-Year Program for offshore oil-and-gas leasing. The industry lawsuit aims to maximize offshore drilling in U.S. Gulf of Mexico waters, which will erode the health and safety of frontline communities, threaten vulnerable ecosystems and species, and thwart U.S. climate goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The Five-Year Program, which Interior approved on December 14, sets up three massive oil-and-gas auctions through 2029. Interior had originally proposed up to 11 offshore sales, eventually settling on three

The oil industry lawsuit comes on the heels of another lawsuit from the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Shell, and the State of Louisiana to remove baseline protections for the critically endangered Rice’s whale in a December Gulf oil auction. It also follows recent moves by the industry to double down on fossil fuel development in the U.S., despite national and international commitments to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions to address the climate crisis. In November more than one million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico; another major incident and predictable consequence of offshore oil-and-gas development.

Meanwhile, environmental groups and Gulf-based organizations filed a legal challenge of their own today to hold the Interior Department accountable for failing to adequately consider the public health impacts on frontline communities in its final Five-Year Program. While the program does consider the climate impact of continued oil-and-gas leasing, Interior failed to assess the environmental justice effects of continued offshore fossil fuel development – even after determining that this disparity is a critical issue directly linked to the program. Gulf coast residents already suffer disproportionate health burdens due to life-threatening, toxic industrial pollution stemming from federal offshore oil-and-gas leasing, and these harms will be extended with approval for future leasing. Interior also failed to properly evaluate the impacts of oil-and-gas leasing on endangered species, particularly how new leasing would further imperil the critically endangered Rice’s whale, one of the world’s most endangered marine species. 

“Fossil fuel development is untenable if we want a livable future,” said Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy. “The oil and gas industry is already sitting on nine million acres of undeveloped leases. They certainly are not entitled to more. Although we acknowledge the government’s focus on climate impacts with the release of this five-year offshore leasing plan, we are taking legal action today because we are concerned about how it will jeopardize the health of overburdened communities.” 

“In Houston and along the Texas Gulf Coast, the stakes are high: More fossil fuels means more carbon emissions, which means more intense hurricanes hitting the inadequately guarded petrochemical infrastructure that is already in place,” said Kristen Schlemmer, Legal Director & Waterkeeper for Bayou City Waterkeeper in Houston. “It is time for us to transition away from these industries, not enable further drilling in the years to come.”

“Healthy Gulf is critical of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s recent Five-Year Plan for oil and gas leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water program director for Healthy Gulf. “We highlighted errors and deficiencies in the agency’s analysis of harmful impacts that will further burden Gulf communities. We join as plaintiffs here to ask a federal court to review BOEM’s plan, and force the agency to improve it.”

“We are not surprised by this industry challenge, given its track record of suing every time the Biden Administration makes any attempt to break free from fossil fuels,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth. “While the Five-Year Program does offer a record-low number of sales and greater focus on climate change, unfortunately it continues to unlawfully overlook many significant harms of the offshore drilling industry. Our lawsuit is another stand for the Gulf ecosystem, its nearby communities and all wildlife that continue to suffer at the hands of Big Oil.”

“The new 5-year offshore drilling plan was informed by nearly a million public comments against oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters. The industry’s unwarranted lawsuit belies the fact that new offshore drilling is broadly unpopular and is not needed to meet our nation’s energy needs. Moreover, new offshore drilling will increase carbon pollution and undermine U.S. and global efforts to address climate change, ” said Pete Stauffer, Ocean Protection Manager, Surfrider Foundation.

“Central and western Gulf communities are on the frontlines of offshore drilling disasters, extraction-related pollution, and the climate change fossil fuels are driving,” said Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program director Athan Manuel. “The Biden Administration finalized a five year plan for offshore fossil fuel development that proposes three additional lease sales, but even that new leasing isn’t enough for these corporations. We will continue to fight to protect our communities and climate from the dangers of offshore drilling.”

“Industry’s lawsuit is unfounded and unwarranted,” said Brad Sewell, director of the oceans program at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “This plan still calls for more leasing in the Gulf, which is the last thing we need and in the last place we need it. Gulf waters have never been hotter. Rising seas are swamping the Gulf coast. It’s time to break, not deepen, our dependence on the very fossil fuels that are driving the climate and biodiversity crises. It’s time to make federal ocean policy part of the climate fix, not the problem. Reducing offshore drilling that exposes oceans, marine life and coastal communities to catastrophic risk and ongoing harm is the answer.” 

“The United States Geological Survey estimates that drilling on public land and in federal waters is responsible for almost a quarter of the greenhouse gases generated by the United States that are warming the planet. The industry currently has 9,000 unused leases or over 8 million acres of public water, and any further expansion of the fossil fuel industry will escalate the climate crisis,” said Joanie Steinhaus, Ocean Program Director for Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We already know that when companies drill, they spill,” said Oceana Campaign Director Joseph Gordon. “While our nation is facing a climate crisis, and coastal communities continue to recover from catastrophic oil spills, the oil industry selfishly wants to open up even more of our oceans for drilling. This comes even though oil and gas companies are already holding over 9 million acres of unused leases. Oceana is ready to stand up to the oil industry to keep it from further ravaging our oceans and our most vulnerable communities. Oceana will fight for those communities, and the oceans that surround them, to stop this deadly cycle of drilling and spilling.”