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Federal judge cites climate crisis in decision to cancel oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

A federal judge on Thursday invalidated a massive oil and gas lease sale for 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico after a coalition of environmental groups sued the Biden administration to stop it.

The ruling cancels 1.7 million acres of oil and gas leases from that sale, according to data from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The administration tried in its first days in office to put a stop to new oil and gas drilling. On January 27, 2021, Biden signed an executive order that paused new permits and directed the Department of the Interior to launch a “rigorous review” of existing programs related to fossil fuel development.

But a lawsuit filed in March on behalf of 13 states led to a judgment from a federal court in Louisiana that blocked Biden’s pause and the sale went forward in November. At the time, administration officials openly admitted that the sale was at odds with its climate goals and said its hands were tied.

In the Thursday ruling, Rudolph Contreras, a US District Court judge for the District of Columbia, said the lease sale was invalid because the Department of Interior’s analysis did not fully take into account the climate impacts of the leases.

Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz tweeted a statement Thursday night noting the Louisiana ruling “compelled” the department to hold the lease sale using the Trump administration’s analysis.

“Our public lands and waters must be protected for generations to come,” the statement continued. “We have documented serious deficiencies in the federal oil and gas program. Especially in the face of the climate crisis, we need to take the time to make significant and long overdue programmatic reforms. Our work will be guided by the law, science and sound policy.”

Scott Lauermann, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, told CNN it is reviewing the “disappointing decision” and that the group is considering its options.

Contreras’ ruling vacated the leases and noted that although the Biden administration already auctioned off the waters, none of the sales were effective yet, according to the government. Therefore, Contreras wrote in his opinion, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management doesn’t need to undo leases — it just must not execute them.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf and Friends of the Earth, sued the Biden administration to stop the lease sale. Environmental law firm Earthjustice represented the coalition.

“We are pleased that the court invalidated Interior’s illegal lease sale,” Earthjustice senior attorney Brettny Hardy said in a statement. “We simply cannot continue to make investments in the fossil fuel industry to the peril of our communities and increasingly warming planet.”

Contreras’ decision found the Biden administration had used outdated modeling when assessing the climate-warming impact of the lease sale, relying on modeling from the Trump administration that concluded the greenhouse gas impacts of not drilling in the gulf would be worse than holding the lease sale — due to increased reliance on foreign oil and gas supply.

“Even under a deferential review, the Court believes that BOEM acted arbitrarily in excluding foreign consumption from its emissions analysis,” Contreras wrote in his decision.

“That’s central to the court’s decision,” Hardy told CNN. “Essentially, what the court determined is that the Interior Department was relying on totally flawed greenhouse gas emissions modeling, so they substantially underestimated the greenhouse gas impacts that would result from development on these leases that had sold.”

The ruling requires the Interior Department to redo its environmental analysis and fix its greenhouse gas modeling, after which it will need to decide whether to move forward with a new lease sale.

“I think this hopefully marks the end of business as usual when it comes to leasing,” Hardy told CNN. “Maybe it creates a sea change in the administration and gets them to start really grappling with these climate issues in a significant, practical way.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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