WASHINGTON, D.C. — 80+ climate and environmental justice organizations sent a sign-on letter to President Biden and Interior Secretary Haaland to effectively ban offshore drilling by creating a new Five-Year Offshore Lease Program with no new lease sales beginning in 2022. The letter also calls for Secretary Haaland to follow the law and reject controversial Lease Sale 257, the largest sale of public waters to oil and gas companies in U.S. history, and to cancel the remaining sales in the current five-year program.
The groups submitted the letter to the House Natural Resources Committee as part of its hearing today called “What More Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Leasing Means for Achieving U.S. Climate Targets.” The letter states how the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) can effectively ban offshore drilling in public waters by creating a new five-year offshore leasing program with no new proposed lease sales after the current program expires this summer.
The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) requires the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) within the DOI to prepare and maintain forward-looking five-year plans — referred to by BOEM as “five-year programs” — to schedule proposed oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Atlantic and Pacific regions. The current offshore leasing program for 2017-2022 was developed by the Obama administration and ends on June 30, 2022.
At that time, OCSLA gives the Interior Secretary discretion to propose as many or as few lease sales as necessary to balance the nation’s economic and environmental interests for the next five years. But the letter notes that the administration has already acknowledged that ending new leasing will have no impact on jobs or the economy “for years to come,” since the fossil fuel industry has already stockpiled millions of acres for drilling that remain undeveloped and non-producing.
“Given the impact of continued fossil fuel extraction on Gulf communities and our climate, the U.S. shouldn’t be locked into another week of offshore drilling, let alone five years more,” said Thomas Meyer, national organizing manager at Food & Water Watch. “After promising to crack down on drilling on federal lands and waters, this administration leased a vast swath of the Gulf to Big Oil and then lied to the public about a supposed legal obligation to do so. The administration must do the only responsible thing now, and put a hold on this reckless new offshore oil leasing by whatever means necessary.”
Many of the groups who signed the letter are part of the Build Back Fossil Free coalition that has pressured the Biden administration in recent months to stop Lease Sale 257, which resulted in a historic auction of 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to ExxonMobil, BP, and other mega-polluters one week after COP26 in November.
Since last year, the Biden administration has repeatedly claimed that the DOI was compelled to move forward with the sale by a federal judge. In June 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana held that pausing offshore lease sales through executive order was an unlawful overreach of executive power.
However, the ruling acknowledged that the Interior Secretary still has “discretion to stop or pause a lease sale because the land has become ineligible for a reason such as an environmental issue.” A subsequent exposé of court records by The Guardian also found that the administration knew that they were not compelled to move forward with offshore lease sales within a specific timeframe, raising questions about the administration’s true reasons for moving forward with the largest sale of public waters for oil and gas drilling in U.S. history.
Environmental groups filed a FOIA request to shed light on the DOI’s decision-making in December, with a response expected in early February.
The letter also coincides with a legal petition that was sent to DOI earlier in the week by over 300 environmental groups urging the Biden administration to phase out oil and gas production on public lands and oceans through executive action in order to meet the Paris Agreement goals.