DOJ Court Filing Debunks Biden Administration Claim About Mandatory Oil and Gas Leases

DOJ Court Filing Debunks Biden Administration Claim About Mandatory Oil and Gas Leases
Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Shortly after President Joe Biden appeared at international climate talks, his administration auctioned off a record amount of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. It claimed its hands were legally tied by a court mandate. But in a memo, the Department of Justice appears to have admitted a prior court ruling did not in fact compel the administration to go through the auction.

“While the Order enjoins and restrains Interior from implementing the pause, it does not compel Interior to take the actions specified by Plaintiffs, let alone on the urgent timeline specified in Plaintiffs’ contempt motion,” the memo, which the Guardian reported on on Monday, reads. That’s a direct contradiction of what the administration was saying around the time of the lease.

“We’re required to comply with the injunction,” Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month. “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.”

The auction in question came after months of legal wrangling. The Biden administration had put a pause on federal oil and gas leasing, a move that the fossil fuel industry and 13 state attorneys general fought in court. In response, the court issued a temporary injunction, though the cases are ongoing.

Despite numerous legal experts saying the injunction didn’t mean the administration needed to start leasing auctions again, it went through with one in November. A big one, with 80 million acres up for grabs in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal analysis estimates that the tract up for option could contain 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If extracted, that would release 723 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to an analysis from the Centre for American Progress.

The Department of Justice memo claims the court’s order was actually misread and does not require government action on leases on a specific timeline. “Similarly here, plaintiffs misread the Court’s Order as requiring government action on a specific timeline, when there is no such command in the Court’s Order,” the memo reads. “The Court’s order does not compel the agency to act in contravention of these other authorities.”

The White House did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. That massive sale, though, flies in the face of research from scientists showing fossil fuels need to be wound down, including an International Energy Agency report showing new fossil fuel projects must end this year to preserve a safe climate.

“The administration has been misleading on this, to put it mildly, it’s very disappointing,” Food and Water Watch National Organising Manager Thomas Meyer, told the Guardian. “They didn’t have to hold this sale and they didn’t have to hold it on this timeline.”

These contradictory statements from the Biden administration around the lease auction will only further muddy its climate reputation. On one hand, the administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, proposed tougher rules to bring down methane emissions, and pushed for climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act. At the same time though, the administration has sided with polluters in some court causes, and a new analysis from Public Citizen determined the Bureau of Land Management had approved an average of 336 new fossil fuel drilling per month in 2021, more than the average amount approved nearly every year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

You can read the full DOJ memo below.