Environmental groups sue Biden administration to halt its largest onshore drilling lease sale

The lawsuit comes as the Biden administration grapples with the political fallout from high gas prices and political attacks from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, a key Democratic vote on Capitol Hill who has criticized the energy and climate agenda. of Biden.

Environmental law group Earthjustice on Wednesday filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth in DC District Court against Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland and the Office of Land Management. The complaint was first shared with CNN.

The groups argue that the federal government, in its decision to put the Wyoming plots in competition, failed to consider environmental impacts on groundwater and wildlife – including sage grouse, pronghorn and deer mullet – as well as the climate impacts of pumping more planet-warming gases into the air.

Groups target selling Wyoming because of its size; of the 130,000 acres of federal land offered to oil and gas companies, about 120,000 acres are in Wyoming.

“Wyoming [sale] is by far the most important,” said Mike Freeman, lead attorney at Earthjustice and lead attorney in the case. “What they’ve done in every state except Wyoming is keep the lease sale very small.”

Wednesday’s trial is the latest battle for a group of environmental lawyers who successfully persuaded the DC District Court to strike down a massive lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico. That case, which was filed last year and decided last January, effectively halted offshore leasing during the Biden administration’s tenure so far.

The legal battle has now moved to dry land.

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When the Biden administration announced it would restart onshore oil and gas leasing in April, it intended to reduce the size of the acreage offered. Interior said at the time it would offer the fossil fuel industry 80% less acreage than originally envisioned, after ‘rigorous environmental review’ and engagement with indigenous tribes and communities. local.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Even with the downsizing, Freeman said Earthjustice is suing because the government hasn’t sufficiently considered the environmental cost of sales.

“The agency has recognized that the production and combustion of oil and gas developed on the leases could generate enormous volumes of greenhouse gases and result in billions of dollars in social and environmental costs,” the complaint states, adding that BLM could have offered less land in Wyoming as it has done in other states.

“What this sale is going to do is lock in about 188 square miles of public land for long-term oil and gas,” Freeman said. “There is a fundamental mismatch between what they are doing with their lease sale and what they are committed to on climate.”

Gas price policy

The interior’s longstanding oil and gas leasing program has been a political hot spot for the administration since Biden took office and pledged to end new drilling leases.

Biden’s temporary pause on new leases was challenged by Republicans in court, prompting the massive sale of leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Then that sale was stopped and invalidated after Earthjustice and other environmental groups sued.

But as gas prices soared in late 2021 and after Russia’s war on Ukraine, Biden has come under intense political pressure to encourage domestic oil and gas production, despite his pledges and climate targets. Pain at the pump is not what Democrats want ahead of a midterm election when they are expected to lose the US House.

And the pressure has been intense on Capitol Hill; Republicans and the Manchins criticized Haaland for what they said was actively undermining domestic energy production.

But Freeman noted that those lease sales could take up to a decade to develop, before they can actively start pumping fossil fuels, or even solve the gas price problem.

“The key point here is that selling these leases will do nothing to help with gas prices,” Freeman said.

Land lease sales are the only ones the Biden administration has advanced so far. The Home Office is expected to publish its proposed plan for the next five years of offshore oil and gas leasing soon. If this latest lawsuit is any indication, more legal challenges are to come over the federally planned oil and gas development.

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