The U.S. government confirmed in a court filing it would resume federal oil and gas lease sales — and established a timeline — to comply with a ruling that called for an end to the Biden administration’s moratorium.

federal oil and gas production

Critics, however, noted that Biden administration officials intend to stretch the process out over several months as they simultaneously appeal the court’s order.

The Justice Department, representing the government, said in a filing late Tuesday to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana that federal leasing would resume this year to comply with Judge Terry Doughty’s recent order. The Department of the Interior (DOI) had foreshadowed the move earlier in August.

The court filing said DOI would begin this month preparing for lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), with the intention of holding an auction in October or November. Onshore, DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans this month to post a list of potential parcels for sale. A public comment period would follow by BLM, with actual sale notices not likely published until December. BLM plans to do additional analysis during that time.

The Western Energy Alliance (WEA) said the government’s timeline “slow walks” a resumption of sales. BLM “should simply move forward with the parcels originally slated for lease in the first half of the year in all oil and natural gas states,” WEA President Kathleen Sgamma said. 

“BLM shouldn’t be doing additional scoping and analysis, which are just stalling tactics,” she said. “The parcels originally slated for the 2021 first and second quarter sales are scoped and ready to put on the calendar.” The brief filed with the court appears to show progress, but the timeline “indicates one step forward and three steps back.”

Simmering Battle

At issue is a long simmering battle that dates to the start of President Biden’s administration in January. That is when federal officials, under direction from the president, suspended new lease sales in the GOM, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and on federal lands in several states. The suspensions followed lawsuits from conservation groups that argued drilling causes environmental problems for both people and wildlife. The administration’s suspension did not affect existing leases.

Biden has promised to put the United States on a path to a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Shortly after taking office, the president ordered the BLM to review the entire oil and gas leasing program, tasking officials with determining if it benefits energy production at the expense of the environment and U.S. taxpayers.

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Earlier this year, 13 states banded together to file a lawsuit in the Louisiana federal court to force the resumption of the sales. The court in June ruled in their favor. Wyoming officials filed a separate but similar federal lawsuit. A consortium of oil and gas industry groups this month also sued the DOI to reverse its decision to indefinitely freeze federal leasing.

However, DOI said it is appealing the Louisiana-based court’s decision. If it were to win on appeal, DOI could again suspend leasing as it studies the environmental impacts of drilling.

“The appeal of the preliminary injunction is important and necessary,” DOI officials said. “Together, federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing programs are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions and growing climate and community impacts. 

“Yet the current programs fail to adequately incorporate consideration of climate impacts into leasing decisions or reflect the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.”