Just four days after historic climate talks in Scotland, where Joe Biden pledged that the US will “lead by example” in addressing dangerous global warming, the president’s own administration is providing a stark contrast – the largest ever sale of oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
The US federal government will auction off more than 80 million acres of gulf land for fossil fuel extraction on Wednesday, a record sale that will lock in years, if not decades, of planet-warming emissions. The massive size of the lease sale – covering an area twice the size of Florida – is a direct defiance of Biden’s previous promise to ban new drilling on public lands and waters. It has stunned environmentalists, who argue that the auction undermines the United States’ shaky credibility on the climate crisis and will make it more difficult to avert catastrophic consequences from rising global temperatures.
Even Biden’s Democratic allies have expressed reservations.
“This administration went to Scotland and told the world that America’s climate leadership has returned, and now it’s about to hand over 80 million acres of public lands in the Gulf of Mexico to fossil fuel companies,” said Raul Grijalva, chair of the House natural resources committee. “[The] lease sale is a step in the wrong direction, and the administration needs to do better.”
There is no guarantee that all of the leases will be filled, but the Department of the Interior, which oversees public lands and waters, estimates that there is up to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.2 trillion cubic feet of gas available for extraction. A separate lease sale offered by the government in Alaska’s Cook Inlet will provide drillers with an additional 192 million barrels of oil and 301 billion cubic feet of gas.
If fully developed over the next four decades, these leases would result in nearly 600 million tons of planet-warming gases, which is more than the UK’s total annual emissions. According to Earthjustice, one of the green groups that has filed a lawsuit alleging that the sale lacks a proper environmental assessment, the sale is a “huge climate bomb.” Biden has set a goal for the United States to cut emissions in half this decade before reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Critics say a troubling pattern has emerged during Biden’s presidency, with his administration issuing drilling permits at a rate of more than 300 per day since his inauguration, faster even than Donald Trump.
The US also refused to sign on to an agreement to end coal mining or phase out gasoline and diesel cars at the Cop26 talks in Glasgow. Once in office, Biden quickly moved to realize at least part of this vision, halting the issuance of oil and gas drilling permits across America’s vast publicly owned lands and ocean territory pending an investigation into how they are carried out.
According to experts, new oil and gas field development must halt this year if the world is to avoid more disastrous heatwaves, floods, and other climate impacts, with fossil fuel production on America’s public lands accounting for roughly a quarter of the country’s overall greenhouse gas pollution. The oil and gas industries, however, immediately objected to Biden’s move, claiming it jeopardized jobs and risked raising energy prices, and a dozen states sued to lift the moratorium. In June, a federal judge in Louisiana sided with the states, ruling that the government had failed to take the necessary steps to halt new leases.
According to the Biden administration, this legal setback has forced the sale of the Gulf of Mexico. The Department of the Interior, according to a spokeswoman, is “complying” with the court ruling while also appealing it and developing a better system to measure the emissions impact of oil and gas lease sales. However, legal experts say the court decision does not preclude the administration from canceling or postponing a scheduled lease sale, or from reducing its scope.
Many residents along the Gulf Coast are concerned that the massive expansion in oil drilling, which reaches down through up to two miles of ocean into the seabed, will result in a repeat of the numerous oil spills that have caused varying degrees of devastation to coastal communities and wildlife.