A court has tossed out the United States’ largest oil and gas lease in its history, citing SEI research in saying federal authorities had not sufficiently accounted for its impact on climate change.
The decision by the US District Court for the District of Columbia forces federal agencies to perform a new environmental analysis to determine whether to conduct the sale again that would allow offshore drilling in 80 million acres (32.37 million hectares) of the Gulf of Mexico.
“The US Department of Interior has long recognized that expanding oil production increases global greenhouse gas emissions, but they have rarely reported that finding when analyzing new lease sales. This decision means they now have to,” said SEI Senior Scientist Peter Erickson, whose work was cited in the decision.
The November auction occurred well after US President Joe Biden halted the sale of oil and gas leases on federal land in an executive order issued shortly following his inauguration. It had been a campaign promise to stop the practice.
However, the former Trump administration had already scheduled the lease sales and performed an environmental study that concluded the leases would not contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. A lawsuit by Republican attorneys general from 13 states sued the Biden administration, prompting a federal judge to block Biden’s executive order banning new sales.
After putting the 80 million acres (32.37 million ha) on the auction block, Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon Mobil offered $192 million for drilling rights in about 1.7 million acres (688 000 ha) of the Gulf.
“The US Department of Interior has long recognized that expanding oil production increases global greenhouse gas emissions, but they have rarely reported that finding when analyzing new lease sales. This decision means they now have to.”
— Peter Erickson, SEI Senior Scientist
Another lawsuit brought by environmental groups accused the federal Interior Department of relying on an outdated environmental analysis to determine the drilling’s impact on foreign greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) claimed the massive lease sale would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Judge Rudolph Contreras’ ruling, SEI had produced a methodology that connects a decrease in oil production to a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions – a calculation that BOEM claimed could not be determined.
Citing SEI research and a perspective, Contreras wrote: “One of those reports did exactly what BOEM claims was not possible, translating the agency’s own estimate of the reduction in barrels of oil at each price point into greenhouse gas emissions by ‘[u]sing standard energy contents (from the U.S. Department of Energy) and carbon contents (from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and discounting the oil used in products and not combusted.’”
It is the same research that provided a foundation for other recent US court decisions last year that halted two oil drilling projects in Alaska.
“My hope is that this spurs on the Department of the Interior’s own thinking about whether and how to continue fossil fuel leasing from public lands,” said Erickson. “Meeting globally agreed climate limits, as in the Paris Agreement, requires a wind-down of fossil fuel consumption and production. The Department of the Interior gets to decide what role it wants to play in that wind-down.”