Legal challenge takes on one of the largest lease sales in U.S. history, which raises serious threats to climate, Gulf communities, and endangered species
Today, Bayou City Waterkeeper, along with other Gulf community and environmental groups, filed a federal court legal challenge to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) lease sale 259 that would offer 73.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing.
The Biden Administration previously canceled this and other sales, citing delays and “conflicting court rulings.” Then Senator Manchin (WV) included provisions for Gulf of Mexico oil leasing in Biden’s landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law in August of 2022. The sale is now scheduled for March 28, 2023, less than a month before the 13th memorial of the Deepwater Horizon BP Disaster.
While the IRA directs the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to hold a lease sale, it does not require such a vast area to be auctioned to industry, nor does it exempt the sale from any existing laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Lease Sale 259 would offer up all unleased areas in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico, which could lock in a massive drilling operation to extract over 1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years, directly contradicting the Administration’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to clean energy.
The complaint notes that in approving this lease sale, BOEM did not consider the health hazards it will cause for Gulf communities residing in proximity to oil refineries and other polluting infrastructure connected with offshore drilling. Nor did it adequately consider the grave climate impacts of such a massive new source of fossil fuel development. The Gulf ecosystem and surrounding communities are already absorbing the impacts of climate change through sea level rise, coastal erosion, and increased storms. This lease sale also jeopardizes the survival of endangered marine life. Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles inhabit Gulf waters, and the Gulf is the exclusive home of the endangered Gulf of Mexico (Rice’s) whale, whose numbers may have dwindled to fewer than 50 individuals.
Earthjustice, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia on behalf of Healthy Gulf, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth. It was filed against Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management following the final notice of lease sale 259.
“We’re at a point where we should be moving away from fossil fuels, not enabling an astounding amount of drilling for more than a generation to come,” said Kristen Schlemmer, Legal Director and Waterkeeper for Bayou City Waterkeeper. “For communities along the Houston Ship Channel, which are predominantly Black, brown, and lower-income, Lease Sale 259 creates an especially toxic combination of risks. More drilling means more facilities in their backyards. This will compound already elevated rates of cancer and heart and lung diseases, while also increasing risks during major storms.”
In January of 2022, lease sale 257 was struck down by a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice due to a faulty analysis of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Biden Administration canceled lease sale 259 in 2022 citing delays and “conflicting court rulings.”
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed Congress and President Joe Biden signed it into law in August of 2022. It was heralded as landmark climate legislation because of its large investments in renewable energy, but the bill also contains several provisions requiring Interior to conduct oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.
- Required Interior to issue leases to high bidders from lease sale 257 by mid-September 2022.
- Directs lease sale 259 be held by March 31, 2023, lease sale 261 be held by September 2023.
- Requires a large oil and gas lease sale within one year of any offshore wind lease sale for the next 10 years.
The most recent sale, lease sale 258, occurred in Alaska at the end of December 2022 as required by the IRA, drawing only one bidder.
Although the IRA ties the declining offshore oil and gas leasing program with the up-and-coming offshore wind leasing program at BOEM, ensuring that the agency complies with bedrock laws that protect people and wildlife will not hinder offshore wind development. The IRA requires only that BOEM conduct lease sales; it does not dictate whether bids are valid or whether, where, and under what conditions it may be acceptable to issue any leases.
BOEM is due to issue its much-anticipated final 5-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing program in 2023.
In January of 2023, Liz Klein was named director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Even though the IRA is prescriptive in some of the offshore oil and gas provisions, it does not excuse the agency from taking a hard look at the harms to people, wildlife, and the climate caused by more leasing, nor does it cabin the government’s broad authority to choose alternatives that avoid or mitigate those harms. In deciding to proceed with this sale, Interior relied on a woefully incomplete analysis that fails to meet these requirements.
For example, a district court ruling that vacated the last Gulf lease sale because Interior relied on a faulty analysis to conclude that leasing would somehow reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Interior now admits that the sale will increase emissions, but incorrectly dismisses the effects based on different, but equally incomplete analysis. Interior has also ignored new information detailing the potential for increased harm to endangered species, including the Rice’s whale, one of the most endangered whales on the planet, that is only found in the Gulf of Mexico.