Federal judge says Biden cannot pause new leases for drilling on public lands

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking west from a parcel of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) that was leased to an oil and gas company in San Juan County, Dec. 16, 2020.

Washington • A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, in the first major legal roadblock for President Joe Biden’s quest to cut fossil fuel pollution and conserve public lands.

Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday against the administration, saying that the power to pause offshore oil and gas leases “lies solely with Congress” because it was the legislative branch that originally made federal lands and waters available for leasing.

Doughty also ruled that 13 states that are suing the administration over its temporary halt to new leases “have made a showing that there is a substantial likelihood that President Biden exceeded his powers.”

Jeff Landry, the Republican attorney general of Louisiana, and attorneys general from 12 other states, all Republicans, filed suit in March to lift the White House executive order that temporarily halted new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters. Biden signed the order during his first week in office in January, saying he wanted a pause in order to conduct a comprehensive review of the program.

Doughty ruled that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and her agency “are hereby enjoined and restrained from implementing the pause of new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters,” until the states’ legal case against the administration is decided.

He wrote that the pause on new leasing should end nationwide and noted that such sweeping preliminary injunctions against federal actions were exceedingly rare. But he concluded that the 13 states had demonstrated that their economies could be irreparably harmed by the pause on drilling.

Joining Louisiana were Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.

The suspension of the leases has been one of the most high-profile and controversial policy moves by the president, who has made climate action central to his agenda.

Environmentalists celebrated the pause as a sign that Biden is serious about shutting down production of fossil fuels, the burning of which is the chief cause of global warming.

Scientists have warned that the world needs to urgently cut emissions if it has any chance to keep average global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which experts say the planet will experience catastrophic, irreversible damage. Temperature change is not even around the globe; some regions have already reached an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency concluded that if the world is to stave off the most devastating consequences of global warming, major economies must immediately stop approving new coal plants and oil and gas fields.

Republicans and the oil industry have criticized the pause as an example of government overreach that could damage the economy and displace thousands of oil and gas workers.

Doughty agreed. “Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” he wrote in his decision, noting that the states depend on a share of the lease payments to fund government programs, including conservation projects. “Local government funding, jobs for plaintiff state workers, and funds for the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline are at stake.”

About 10% of the country’s oil and gas supply comes from public lands. Fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and waters and tribal land generated more than $8 billion in tax revenue last year, according to the Interior Department. Of that, $2.9 billion went to the federal government, and $1.8 billion went to state and local governments, with the remainder spread among Native American tribes, restoration projects and other funds.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department, which manages federal oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters, said in a statement that the administration was reviewing the ruling and would comply with it.

The spokesperson, who declined to be quoted by name, said that the Interior Department continued to work on an interim report to Biden about the state of the federal oil and gas drilling programs, as well as recommendations on the future of the federal role in drilling on public lands.

Haaland is expected to send those recommendations to Biden later this summer.

In a statement, Landry called the injunction “a victory not only for the rule of law, but also for the thousands of workers who produce affordable energy for Americans. We appreciate that federal courts have recognized President Biden is completely outside his authority in his attempt to shut down oil and gas leases on federal lands.”

Congressional Democrats said they would move forward with legislative efforts to limit oil drilling on public lands.

“We need to update our fossil fuel leasing laws across the board to establish a cleaner, more sustainable standard of use for our public resources, as this committee is already seeking to do,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “Our economic and environmental future shouldn’t be subject to rulings based on industry-funded science or opportunistic complaints that we didn’t hear until President Biden was sworn into office.”

Haaland, a former environmental activist, once said that the federal government should ban from public lands all new hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an environmentally destructive form of oil and gas drilling.

She now heads the agency that oversees the nation’s roughly 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks and current oil and gas drilling.

She has also been charged with overseeing Biden’s “30 by 30” initiative, which calls for conserving 30% of public lands and waters by 2030.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.