U.S. To Sell Area the Size of New Mexico For Offshore Drilling Just 5 Days After COP26

After President Joe Biden's COP26 pledges about tackling climate change, environmental groups have condemned an upcoming massive federal offshore drilling auction as an example of how rhetoric on climate often does not match reality.

The largest federal offshore drilling auction in U.S. history, in which oil companies can bid for lucrative waters, is scheduled to take place in New Orleans on Wednesday—five days after the end of the summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The sale—Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Lease Sale 257—involves 80 million acres, or around 125,000 square miles, an area big enough to fit in all but five U.S. states. By comparison, New Mexico's land area covers about 121,300 square miles.

Up for grabs is the right to build platform rigs up to 231 miles from shore and drill for oil at underwater depths of up to 11,000 feet. The deal would produce an estimated 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next five decades.

In his first week in office, Biden issued an executive order to pause oil and gas lease sales on federal lands, pending a review of their environmental impact. But in June, a federal judge ordered their resumption, siding with 13 states that sued the administration.

The administration has appealed the judge's ruling, but agreed to go forward with the leases while the dispute goes through the courts.

offshore drilling and production platform
Shell's Perdido offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico 200 miles southwest of Houston, Texas in this illustrative image. Environmental groups have criticized the Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Lease Sale 257. Gary Tramontina/Getty

The auction is a win for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who spearheaded the lawsuit.

Lawyers from Landry's office made the case last week that the Biden administration cannot legally halt all lease sales because Congress, by statute, has said such lease sales must happen regularly.

On Monday, a federal judge granted Landry's request for a nationwide injunction against Biden's ban.

"It was a big victory but a small one at the same time," Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill told Newsweek.

"The Biden administration has attacked the entire fossil fuel industry and that has enormous long term implications for our state and other states," she said.

"We think it was entirely ill advised (for Biden) in his first week in office to launch an attack on the fossil fuel industry, including natural gas, which is an important bridge fuel if you are wanting to move significant reductions in emissions."

"The president is entitled to aspirations. What he cannot do is violate acts of Congress and make law by executive order," she added.

The sale coming so soon after the warm words of the Glasgow summit poses a problem of optics around climate for the Biden administration.

The Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is coordinating the auction, has been contacted for comment.

BOEM spokesperson John Filostrat told ABC News that the Biden administration was "complying with a U.S. District Court's injunction regarding [the auction] while the government appeals the decision."

They added that the Biden administration "is continuing its comprehensive review of the deficiencies associated with its offshore and onshore oil and gas leasing programs."

Can Biden's Admin. Do More?

Environmental campaigners insist the Biden administration should be doing more to delay or cancel the bidding.

Kristen Monsell, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity said the preliminary injunction should only halt Biden's executive order to pause leasing, and in "in no way compels" BOEM to hold the auction.

She said the Biden administration "should use its inherent authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) to not hold the sale."

Her group was among 267 organizations which signed a letter last week pleading Biden to halt the sale. They want the Department of Interior to examine the latest evidence on climate change and the impacts of lease sales to the Gulf's environment "as it is legally required to do."

President Joe Biden at COP26
President Joe Biden at COP26 in Glasgow, United Kingdom on November 2, 2021. His administration has been criticized over the largest offshore lease sale in U.S. history after Biden's climate change pledges. Steve Reigate/Getty

"In Glasgow, you assured the world that your plans to cut emissions are a fait accompli not mere rhetoric," the letter said in a direct rebuke to Biden.

"Selling more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development just days after the international climate talks makes a mockery of those commitments."

Within the Democrats, chair of the natural resources committee, Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) is concerned the sale is taking place without the Biden administration giving details about how it will modernize the federal oil and gas program.

"Regardless of when we hold lease sales, nothing prevents DOI from informing the public about how it plans to reform and improve the federal leasing program," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, before the final lease or exploration ever takes place, the legal fight will continue.

"The lease sale is just the beginning of the process, it is not the end of the process," Murrill told Newsweek. "The government still has to enter into an actual lease and I think the social cost of carbon numbers will come into play in that process."