When we arrived in Glasgow for the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, we didn't expect President Joe Biden to put the U.S. on track to meet the Paris agreement climate goals overnight. But we did hope that, given the mounting climate crises this summer and alarming military and intelligence reports from his own administration, Biden would do everything in his power to keep his campaign promise to stop leasing public lands and waters for more fossil fuel extraction.
On Nov. 17, 2021, just five days after President Biden claimed a return to U.S. climate leadership at COP26, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland auctioned off 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and other oil and gas corporations for offshore drilling. Formally referred to as Lease Sale 257, it is the largest offshore lease sale in U.S. history.
There's an obvious reason why this is wrong: We are at a critical moment in history where the U.S. and other large, developed countries must immediately reduce emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius and preserve a livable planet. According to federal decision documents, Lease Sale 257 was projected to unleash 723 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions —the equivalent of putting 157 million more cars on our highways or building 182 new coal power plants.
All of the greatest ecological disasters in the Gulf of Mexico began with an offshore lease sale. We all remember BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. A decade later, cleanup workers and Gulf residents still suffer chronic health issues from that disaster. Oil from that spill still contaminates the Gulf to this day and is slowly poisoning marine life, lowering reproduction rates for dolphins, sea turtles and other endangered species who live there.
Lease Sale 257 may also be illegal. Under federal law, the Interior Secretary is only authorized by Congress to move forward with offshore lease sales in a manner that considers the impact of oil and gas exploration on the environment. The Department of the Interior is also required to conduct accurate environmental impact studies for each sale and has clear authority to cancel a lease or permit at any time if oil and gas development activity would cause harm or damage to life, property, national security, or the environment.
Yet, the impact of Lease Sale 257's on the environment was not properly considered. In deciding to move forward with the sale, the Interior relied on outdated and inaccurate environmental impact statements produced by the Trump administration and outrageously concluded that the sale would have no impact on climate change despite producing the equivalent emissions of 182 new coal plants. A pending lawsuit filed by environmental groups in August argued that Lease Sale 257 is a clear violation of at least two federal laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA).
The Biden administration claimed that their hands were tied and that they were compelled to move forward with the sale by a district court. We read the court order. The judge did strike down President Biden's executive order to implement a blanket pause on all lease sales, ruling that this overstepped executive authority. But the judge did not compel a specific timing for Lease Sale 257 to move forward, which would have overstepped the judiciary's jurisdiction. The administration even admitted they were not compelled on a specific timing in a memo filed in Louisiana district court a week before the Interior announced it would resume the sale. Congress grants the Interior secretary authority to advance or cancel lease sales at her discretion in accordance with the law and environmental safeguards.
Just this week it was reported that the lease sale did not have to move forward. But the Biden administration refused to answer questions about this revelation.
So why did the Interior move forward with a sale that we know will accelerate warming and the loss of millions of lives based on faulty environmental impact statements produced by the Trump administration?
We need to get to the bottom of these questions. In the meantime, Secretary Haaland still has the power to reverse the sale.
To protect those living in the Gulf, particularly the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities that will be impacted the most by the climate emergency, oil spills and gas leaks, our government needs to comply with NEPA and OCSLA and suspend or cancel Lease Sale 257 to reassess the environmental impacts lawfully and accurately. And President Biden needs to realize that for young people like us, this lease sale and every new fossil fuel project he approves will become one of our top voting issues in 2022 and 2024. It is no longer a future crisis for a future generation—this is a climate emergency, and it's happening right now.