The Biden administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water was blocked Tuesday by a federal judge in Louisiana, who ordered that plans for delayed lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska waters, as well as “all eligible onshore properties,” continue.
The decision is a setback for Democratic President Joe Biden’s efforts to quickly transition the country away from fossil fuels and thus avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as catastrophic droughts, floods, and wildfires.
The decision was made by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in response to a lawsuit filed in March by Louisiana Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and officials from 12 other states. Doughty stated that his decision is binding throughout the country. It grants a preliminary injunction, effectively halting the suspension until further arguments on the merits of the case are heard.
“The omission of any rational explanation in canceling the lease sales and enacting the Pause leads this Court to rule that Plaintiff States also have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of this claim,” he wrote.
“We are reviewing the judge’s decision and will comply with it,” said an Interior Department statement sent via email by communications director Melissa Schwartz. “The Interior Department is working on an interim report that will include preliminary findings on the state of federal conventional energy programs, as well as 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.”
The moratorium was imposed after Biden signed executive orders to combat climate change on January 27. The lawsuit was filed in March of this year. The Interior Department later canceled oil and gas lease sales on public lands in Nevada, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and the bureau’s eastern region until June.
Biden’s orders included a request that Interior officials investigate whether the leasing program unfairly benefits corporations at the expense of taxpayers, as well as the program’s impact on climate change.
The 13 states that filed the lawsuit claimed that the administration skipped comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays could be implemented, and that the moratorium would cost them money and jobs. Last week, Doughty heard arguments in the case in Lafayette.
Federal attorneys argued that the public notice and comment period did not apply to the suspension, that lease sales are not required by law, and that the Secretary of the Interior has broad discretion in leasing decisions.
“No existing lease has been cancelled as a result of any of the actions challenged here,” lawyers for the administration argued in briefs.
Doughty, on the other hand, sided with the plaintiff states’ attorneys, who argued that the delay in new leasing cost the states revenue from rents and royalties.
“Millions, if not billions, of dollars are at stake,” wrote Doughty, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2017 by President Donald Trump. “Local government funding, jobs for Plaintiff State employees, and funds for the restoration of Louisiana’s Coastline are at stake,” he added, referring to the possibility of a loss of oil and gas revenue that pays for Louisiana’s efforts to restore coastal wetlands.
“This is fantastic news for Louisiana workers whose livelihoods are threatened by the administration’s careless energy policy,” said U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) in a statement.
However, not everyone agreed with the judge’s decision.
“The judge’s order turns a blind eye to runaway climate pollution that is destroying our planet,” said Randi Spivak, the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program director. “We’ll keep fighting against the fossil-fuel industry and the politicians that are bought by them.
Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia are the other plaintiff states.
“This is a victory not only for the rule of law, but also for the thousands of workers who produce affordable energy for Americans,” Landry said in a statement issued shortly after the ruling.