The Biden administration on Monday said it would resume oil and gas leasing on public lands while it appeals a court’s ruling that its freeze violates federal law.
The announcement by the Interior Department came as the American Petroleum Institute and other major energy trade groups filed a lawsuit against what they called the “unprecedented” leasing halt.
No drilling auctions have been held since President Biden issued his Jan. 27 executive order, a gap that the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana described as a violation of federal law.
“The law is clear: The department must hold lease sales and provide a justification for significant policy changes,” said Paul Afonso, API senior vice president and chief legal officer. “They have yet to meet these requirements in the eight months since instituting a federal leasing pause, which continues to create uncertainty for U.S. natural gas and oil producers.”
The other 11 energy associations on the lawsuit include the Independent Petroleum Association of America; the Southeast Oil and Gas Association; the Western States Petroleum Association, and trade groups in Montana, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Utah.
The Biden order, part of the president’s ambitious effort to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in an effort to combat climate change, directed the department to pause oil-and-gas leasing “pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of federal oil and gas permitting.”
Since then, however, lawmakers and industry officials have become increasingly frustrated by the lengthy delay.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has mostly stonewalled questions about when the review will be completed, even after a federal judge in Louisiana issued a June 15 preliminary injunction blocking the “pause” in response to a lawsuit filed by 13 states.
At a June 23 hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, Ms. Haaland was quizzed on why the department had not published a new lease sale in the Federal Register, given the court decision.
“We are going to follow the decision of the court and currently the decision is being reviewed by our solicitors’ department, and our department and the Department of Justice,” she told the committee, adding that “production on existing leases continues.”
Rep. Garret Graves, Louisiana Republican, asked if anything had changed regarding the pause, saying that “the judge said you can’t do that, that it’s illegal.”
She said June 23 that the comprehensive review would be issued in “early summer,” and on July 22 that it would come out “soon.” But with Labor Day approaching, critics say the pause is looking more like an indefinite moratorium.
“Contrary to their various statutory obligations and duties, Defendants have imposed a moratorium — express or de facto — on all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and in federal waters in response to the president’s directive,” said the 32-page complaint.
The API lawsuit says that the pause violates a number of federal laws, including the Mineral Leasing Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
“Defendants have suddenly and comprehensively upended the status quo by indefinitely postponing or canceling all federal oil and gas lease sales without providing any rationale,” the lawsuit said. “Indeed, defendants are not even willing to publicly admit what they are doing, much less provide an explanation sufficient to justify the change.”
Ten lease sales were canceled after Mr. Biden issued the executive order, the complaint said.
The pause has continued even though last week, the Biden administration pressured OPEC and its allies to increase oil production in an effort to reduce soaring fuel prices.