Judge orders US administration to expand oil lease sale

A Louisiana-based federal judge ordered the Biden administration to expand its imminent Gulf of Mexico oil lease sale Judge James Cain said that officials appeared to have weaponized the Endangered Species Act by yanking 6 million acres off the auction block. Energy sales in the Gulf of Mexico have been a source of tension between Republican-run Gulf states and the Democratic Party-run administration in Washington DC.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) “failed to justify” shrinking the territory offered in the September 27th sale amid concerns it could harm one of the world’s most endangered whales, according to US District Judge James Cain in a 30-page ruling released late last week.

Judge Cain said that, when the agency scaled-down the sale, it cited a 2022 study that indicated the Rice’s whale might be found in the affected waters. But, observed the judge, this was despite BOEM previously weighing the same research in coming to the conclusion that restrictions would not be needed.

The administration’s decision was an “unexplained about-face” that left the impression the move was “merely an attempt to provide scientific justification to a political reassessment of offshore drilling,” Cain wrote, adding that “the process followed here looks more like a weaponization of the Endangered Species Act than the collaborative, reasoned approach prescribed by the applicable laws and regulations”.

Judge Cain ordered the department to conduct the sale, including the previously withdrawn acreage, by September 30th, a deadline imposed under last year’s climate law.

Louisiana had argued that it stood to lose as much as $2.2m in royalties. The state had been backed by oil industry challengers to the administration’s plan, including the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron USA Inc., and Shell Offshore Inc. Chevron had emphasized that vessel delays would increase the time and money needed to complete projects in the area.

Ryan Meyers, a senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, said the ruling “hit the brakes on the Biden administration’s ill-conceived effort to restrict American development of reliable, lower-carbon energy in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Environmentalists insisted that the order would further imperil the Rice’s whale, a species whose numbers have dwindled to less than 100. Earthjustice said that it was considering options for appeal.