U.S. gov’t oil drilling plan sued by green groups, oil companies

The groups were concerned that new leasing would jeopardize the health and safety of the communities, threaten ecosystems and species, and undermine U.S. climate goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental groups and oil companies filed two separate legal challenges at almost the same time to a U.S. appeals court against the Joe Biden administration over a controversial plan to offer drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

On behalf of eight Gulf-based environmental organizations, Earthjustice, a California-headquartered environmental law organization, filed a petition on Monday to “hold the Interior Department accountable for failing to adequately consider the public health impacts on frontline communities” in a five-year offshore drilling plan.

In this photo released by the U.S. Coast Guard on June 11, 2010, a controlled burn of oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill sends towers of fire hundreds of feet into the air over the Gulf of Mexico on June 9, 2010. (Xinhua/U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class John Masson)

On the same day, the American Petroleum Institute (API), an oil and gas trade group, filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, saying the policy would leave Americans at risk of relying on foreign energy sources.

The plan, first unveiled in September and approved in December by the Interior Department, includes three oil-and-gas auctions through 2029.

The Interior Department said the three lease sales represent the minimum number compared to any five-year plan since the government began publishing them in 1980.

The program has drawn fierce opposition from both sides since it was unveiled. The oil and gas companies said slashing drilling leases will raise fuel prices, while environmental advocates said allowing continued leasing undermine efforts to stop global warming.

“Demand for affordable, reliable energy is only growing, yet this administration has used every tool at its disposal to restrict access to vast energy resources in federal waters,” API General Counsel Ryan Meyers said in a statement following Monday’s legal challenge.

“In issuing a five-year program with the fewest lease sales in history, the administration is limiting access in a region responsible for generating among the lowest carbon-intensive barrels in the world, putting American consumers at greater risk of relying on foreign sources for our future energy needs,” Meyers added.

The API has been a frequent critic of the Biden administration’s energy policies, even as U.S. oil development has hit historic highs.

Environmental groups accused the oil and gas industry for seeking to maximize offshore drilling in the U.S. waters of the Gulf Mexico.

“The oil and gas industry is already sitting on nine million acres of undeveloped leases. They certainly are not entitled to more,” said Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy in a statement.

The groups were concerned that new leasing would jeopardize the health and safety of the communities, threaten ecosystems and species, and undermine U.S. climate goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions, said Hardy.

They also point to a “critical” disparity issue facing the “frontline communities.”

“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,” the groups said in a statement.

They cited a “major incident” in November where more than 1 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

The new drilling leases will “further imperil” endangered species in those waters, particularly Rice’s whale, one of the world’s most endangered marine species, the groups said.

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.

The oil industry currently has 9,000 unused leases or over 8 million acres of public water, according to Ocean Program Director for Turtle Island Restoration Network, one of the eight petitioners in the lawsuit.

U.S. President Joe Biden had promised during his campaign to end new federal oil leasing. His efforts have been blocked by the courts and also discouraged by rising gasoline prices, which political analysts said could hurt his chances of reelection.

Biden sees offshore wind power as a key element to his plan to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2050.

However, a wave of cancellations of offshore wind projects on the U.S. East Coast last year, due to financial troubles and policy burdens, cast a shadow over the authorities’ ambitions, impeding its progress toward meeting climate goals.

Experts said the troubles facing offshore wind in the United States included the technical challenges of floating wind farms in the West Coast and economic problems for the industry as inflation has driven up prices for turbines, labor and steel, and higher interest rates have increased financing costs.

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, makes oil and gas lease sales a prerequisite for new offshore wind power auctions. It requires the administration to lease at least 60 million acres for offshore gas and oil development on top of its offshore wind leases.

- Xinhua