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Conservation Groups Object To Biden Administration’s Energy Leasing Plans

Conservation groups are protesting Biden administration plans to open nearly 750,000 acres of public lands to oil and gas leasing/Rebecca Latson file

The decision by the Biden administration to open nearly 750,000 acres of public lands to oil and gas leasing has drawn criticism from conservation groups that say the move goes against President Biden’s past statements on battling climate change.

The groups on Friday filed formal objections to the administration’s plans to open 734,000 acres in Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and the Dakotas to oil and gas leasing. Groups protesting the leases included the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and The Wilderness Society.

The objections were filed by the Western Environmental Law Center, which claimed that “oil and gas in the proposed leases contain up to 246 million tons of climate pollution, as much as 62 coal-fired power plants emit in one year.”

The filings also claim that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands in question should be “off limits for leasing because of the government’s ongoing failure under multiple laws to assess and avoid harm from the federal fossil fuel program’s climate pollution. That includes harm to land, water, communities and endangered species.”

“The government is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with our future,” said Melissa Hornbein, the center’s senior attorney. “The science is clear: In order to maintain an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, approximately 60 percent of global oil and gas must be left in the ground. I think we can all agree that a 50 percent chance of success isn’t great odds when it comes to our planet’s ability to support life, yet the government is doubling down on fossil fuel extraction precisely when it should be hitting the brakes. The announcement of these sales is particularly bewildering in light of President Biden’s executive actions on climate and the Bureau of Land Management’s clear legal discretion when it comes to leasing.”

In January the Biden administration ordered a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing pending a review of the program. The renewed leasing plans, primarily in Wyoming and Colorado, follow a June court order that lifted the leasing pause but retained the administration’s authority over federal oil and gas.

Despite the leasing pause, the administration has approved more than 2,800 new permits to drill, said WELC, adding that “that rate of 351 per month outpaces the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018-2020.”

“It’s appalling that the Interior Department plans to allow more climate-destroying oil and gas extraction when it has broad legal authority not to lease these public lands,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Judges in several recent court decisions have agreed that it’s illegal to allow any new leasing without looking at the potential harm to the climate, wildlife habitat and groundwater. Any analysis of the dangers of fracking and drilling will make undeniably clear that the federal fossil fuel program needs to end now.”

Biden’s approval of drilling permits comes despite renewed IPCC warnings and several analyses showing that climate pollution from the world’s already-producing oil, gas and coal developments would push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Those analyses, including by the International Energy Agency, show that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires no new investment in fossil fuel projects. 

In January, 574 climate, conservation, Indigenous, religious and business groups sent then-President-elect Biden text for a proposed executive order to use the full force of the law to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. 

In April, more than 200 groups filed comments with the administration calling for a formal climate review of the federal fossil fuel programs under the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Lands Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act and other laws.

“Federal lands and minerals are supposed to be managed in trust for the benefit of the public,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Addressing the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are very clearly top public priorities, and keeping federal lands and mineral deposits off the oil and gas auction block is a key step in solving both problems.”

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