Biden Administration to Auction 80 Million Acres for Fossil Fuel Extraction

Not a week after COP26, the administration shocked environmental advocates with a mega-sale of Gulf oil leases.

Offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico
Terry Vine / Getty Images

November has been an active month for climate dialogue courtesy of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). At this year's conference, which took place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland, nearly 200 nations pledged to reduce carbon emissions, “phase down” the use of coal-fired power, and increase financial assistance to developing nations to help them adopt clean energy and build resilience against climate disasters. More than 100 nations also agreed to curb methane emissions and to halt and reverse deforestation.

In the United States, however, the aftermath of the conference came with bad news: Less than a week after COP26—where President Joe Biden promised that America would “lead by example” in the fight against climate change—the federal government hosted an auction through which to sell to oil and gas companies more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for the extraction of fossil fuels. The sale is the largest-ever sale of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to Reuters, oil and gas companies ended up purchasing 1.7 million acres—approximately 2% of what was on the auction block—for a collective sum of over $190 million. The top buyers were Chevron, which at $47.1 million was the auction’s biggest spender, followed by Anadarko, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell. Exxon, which acquired nearly a third of the sold inventory, ranked fifth in spending but first in purchased acreage.

The Guardian called the auction a “jarring contradiction” by the Biden administration, which promised to oppose offshore drilling and drilling on federal lands, but has granted drilling permits at a rate of 300 per month since Biden’s inauguration.

Environmental groups were quick to express dismay and concern.

“The Biden administration is lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a joint statement issued with the environmental group Earthjustice. “This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution, and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast. Biden has the authority to stop this, but instead he’s casting his lot in with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency.”

Echoed Earthjustice attorney Brettny Hardy, “The dichotomy between holding a lease sale and committing to cut back U.S. carbon emissions is glaring … By selling these leases, the Biden administration is not solving the oil prices of today, but instead increasing the United States’ climate heating emissions tomorrow.”

Pursuant to his promises, the president upon taking office issued an executive order that temporarily halted the issuance of oil and gas drilling permits across publicly owned lands and ocean territory. Oil and gas companies subsequently sued, however, at which point a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the Biden administration to lift its moratorium. Because of the court’s decision, the administration says it had no choice but to hold the auction.

“It’s a legal case and legal process, but it’s important for advocates and other people out there who are following this to understand that it’s not aligned with our view, the president’s policies, or the executive order that he signed,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.

Although it required the administration to lift its moratorium on permits, legal experts say the court’s ruling did not mandate this month’s auction, which was executed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“The Louisiana opinion doesn’t force the administration to move forward with any particular lease sale—the Department of Interior still has discretion over that,” Max Sarinsky, a senior attorney at the New York University School of Law, told The Guardian. “If they were to postpone, I’m almost certain they would be sued by oil and gas interests, but that’s another matter.”

Earthjustice argues that the auction was not only disappointing but also illegal. In August, it filed a lawsuit against the government challenging its decision to hold the sale. The decision, it argues, was made based on a 2017 environmental analysis that is “fatally flawed” and ignores now-apparent risks from pipeline leaks.

“The administration is violating the law by moving forward with the sale based on incorrect data that does not properly reflect the impact that giving more land to industry for oil production would have on the Gulf of Mexico, the surrounding ecosystems, and our planet,” Hardy said.

Collectively, the 80 million acres offered by the feds could lead to the production of up to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.42 trillion feet of gas, according to the Interior Department. Burning that much fossil fuel would create more than 516 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Earthjustice, which says that’s equivalent to the emissions of 112 million cars, 130 coal-fired power plants operating for a year, or the carbon sequestered by 632 million acres of forest.