Federal judge blocks Biden pause on new oil and gas leases

    BRIEF

    President Joe Biden (photo courtesy of the White House)

    A federal judge in Louisiana has ordered the Biden administration to restart regular sales of oil and gas leases, forcing the administration to prematurely abandon a central piece of its climate change agenda.

    In a preliminary ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty granted the request of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and 12 other Republican-led states, including Missouri, that filed a court challenge, and ordered the administration to hold quarterly lease sales nationally at least until the case is decided.

    The order in the Western District of Louisiana is not a final ruling on the case, but does indicate Doughty expects the states to eventually prevail.

    As part of a Jan. 27 executive order meant to address climate change, Biden temporarily paused new oil and gas leases on public lands while the administration reviewed leasing policy, including the contributions to climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2017 that energy development on public lands is responsible for nearly one-quarter of the country’s carbon emissions.

    Doughty, whom former President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench, ruled federal laws compel the administration to hold regular lease sales for oil and gas rights on public lands, and only Congress can change the laws to make a pause legal. The administration overstepped its constitutional powers by ordering the pause, he said.

    The public interest weighs in favor of immediately blocking the administration’s pause because of the losses in state funding that would result from the lost bonus payments when lease sales are held, he said.

    “Millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake,” he wrote. “Local government funding, jobs for plaintiff state workers, and funds for the restoration of Louisiana’s coastline are at stake.”

    The Interior Department canceled quarterly lease sales for the first two quarters of 2021, and had not indicated when it planned to lift the pause. Interior has said an interim report on the findings of its review of leasing policy would be finished early this summer.

    In a statement Wednesday, Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the department was “reviewing the judge’s opinion and will comply with the decision.”

    “The Interior Department continues to work on an interim report that will include initial findings on the state of the federal conventional energy programs, as well as outline next steps and recommendations for the Department and Congress to improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs, and build a just and equitable energy future,” she said.

    Schwartz declined to answer if the administration planned to appeal the ruling. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

    Senate Energy Committee ranking Republican John Barrasso, a vocal critic of the leasing pause, praised the ruling in a statement.

    “President Biden’s ban on new oil and gas leases is illegal,” said Barrasso, of Wyoming. “This decision is a victory for the rule of law and American energy workers.”

    Environmentalists have called for the pause to be permanent. Prohibiting oil and gas development on public lands is key to Biden’s pledge to address global warming, environmental groups have said. A ban on new leases would also be crucial to the administration’s goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030.

    Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said on Twitter on Tuesday that the environmental community would continue to “challenge any attempts at issuing new federal public lands leases in the Western U.S. that fail to grapple with the urgency compelled by the climate crisis, protect our public lands, or remedy inequities & injustices to communities.”

    House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said the ruling was wrong on its legal merits and shows why the leasing laws need to be updated.

    “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,” he said in a statement. “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.”