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Environmental groups challenge government’s sale of Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling

Despite the Biden Administration's efforts to tackle climate change, their oil and gas leasing could have contradicting effects on the environment according to the lawsuit.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Several environmental groups including Healthy Gulf, filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court challenging the Department of Interior's sale of 73.3 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas leasing.

As part of the federal government’s largest oil-and-gas lease offering in history, the Gulf of Mexico Lease Sale 259 was slated to take place last year, but was delayed along with other offshore gas and oil auctions, purportedly due to "conflicting court rulings."

In August, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, included provisions for Gulf of Mexico oil leasing in Biden's Inflation Reduction Act in an effort to lower the cost of oil for Americans.

Despite the legislation's efforts to invest in clean energy solutions and tackle climate change threats, Lease Sale 259 is expected to produce up to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. The environmental groups argue in their lawsuit that this will contribute "substantially to greenhouse gas pollution that will exacerbate the climate crisis worldwide, undermine national and international efforts to transition to clean energy, and increase harms to Gulf communities."

The lawsuit also points to the devastating effects that offshore drilling can have on the survival of endangered marine life. Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles inhabit Gulf waters, and is also the exclusive home of the endangered Rice’s whale, whose numbers have dwindled to fewer than 50 individuals. The species suffered a significant population decline after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, which resulted in the death of 11 workers and the largest oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling operations.

Now scheduled for March 28, the sale comes less than a month before the 13th memorial of the Gulf disaster.

"The Gulf of Mexico is one of the most productive and biodiverse ecosystems in the United States, providing a home to thousands of species ranging from simple invertebrates to highly evolved marine mammals including dolphins and whales," the complaint states.

While the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement last month, intended to assess the environmental effects of its leasing decision, the complaint claims it failed to properly disclose and consider the "significant harm from ship strikes, pollution, and oil spills on endangered species such as the Rice’s whale."

It further alleges that the bureau, an agency within the Department of Interior, did not "rationally evaluate" the environmental and climate impacts of new fossil fuel development and greenhouse gas emissions, relying instead on "problematic modeling and assumptions" in their conclusion that the sale will only slightly increase domestic emissions.

The groups also note that in approving the lease sale, the bureau "dismissed the impacts of onshore oil and gas infrastructure — refineries, petrochemical plants, and other industrial sources that process fossil fuels and related products " on the surrounding Gulf communities, many of which rely economically on commercial fisheries for seafood production as well as coastal tourism, and have already been impacted by climate change with rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increased storms.

The environmental law organization Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, Bayou City Waterkeeper, and Friends of the Earth in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Defendants include the Department of the Interior and Interior Secretary Debra A. Haaland.

“Holding this offshore oil lease sale without careful environmental review is both unlawful and morally reprehensible,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “More oil drilling in the Gulf is too big a risk for the communities and wildlife living there, and too harmful to the climate. The Biden administration needs to end new extraction, phase out drilling, and start taking its commitment to climate action seriously.”

A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Law, National

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