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Let’s Not Sign Up for 70 More Years of Offshore Oil Drilling

What happened: We’re suing the government to challenge an offshore lease sale planned for the end of September that would offer more than 67 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling. We’re also urging the government to reconsider a five-year plan for even more offshore oil and gas leasing.

Why it matters: While Lease Sale 261 was mandated by the Inflation Reduction Act, the government did not adequately consider the health threats of already overburdened Gulf communities living near oil refineries and other polluting infrastructure, nor did it look carefully enough at the climate impacts of oil-and-gas development. And there could be more coming. In late-September, the government is expected to release its final five-year plan, lasting through 2028, that could include as many as 11 new offshore lease sales, according to the initial draft proposal. Holding 11 new fossil fuel auctions would sanction up to 70 years of additional fossil-fuel extraction.

Why we’re challenging Lease Sale 261

  • Mandated by the IRA: Lease Sale 261, which the Biden administration canceled in 2021, is the final of three offshore oil and gas lease sales mandated under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the 2022 landmark climate legislation. The sale is planned for the end of September.
  • Promises kept: We supported the transformative climate spending in the IRA — and we promised to fight the law’s harmful aspects, including these lease sale mandates.
  • Violating NEPA: The Department of Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it did not consider the health threats to Gulf Coast communities living near oil refineries and other polluting drilling infrastructure. The department also failed to adequately consider the climate impacts from this massive new source of fossil fuel development.

More offshore lease sales on the horizon

  • A five-year plan: The Department of the Interior is also expected to release its finalized five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing near the end of September. The initial draft of the plan contained up to 11 massive new offshore lease sales between 2023 and 2028 in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
  • Jeopardizing our planet: At the lowest end of government estimates, the greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and burning oil and gas from the acres up for lease would be nearly equal to ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project in Alaska. At the high end of the estimates, it would be roughly 13 times that size.
  • A plan to fail on our national climate goals: If finalized as proposed, this plan would recklessly sanction up to 70 years of additional fossil-fuel extraction on top of existing levels of production that will continue in the Gulf at a time when the effects of a worsening climate crisis are evident all around us.

Who bears the brunt

  • Overburdened: We filed this lawsuit on behalf of Gulf Coast community groups and environmental organizations. Communities living near the Gulf of Mexico are already on the frontlines of some of the worst health, economic, and climate impacts of continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Offshore has onshore impacts: Offshore platforms bring more pipelines, more refineries, and more petrochemical facilities, dumping even more pollution on these same communities and exacerbating health problems like cancer and asthma.

A vulnerable ecosystem to defend

  • Protecting an endangered whale: Earlier this month, the government agreed to limit Lease Sale 261’s area to reduce the risk of driving the endangered Gulf of Mexico (Rice’s) whale to extinction. Scientists estimate there may be only 51 Gulf of Mexico whales left on Earth.
  • More protections are needed for marine life: While this is a welcome first step toward better protecting threatened marine life and ecosystems, far more must be done to curb the ecological harms done by offshore drilling.
  • Oil spill hazard: Deepwater drilling is particularly vulnerable to hurricane impacts, and the catastrophic oil spills they could potentially cause. When Hurricane Zeta hit the Gulf of Mexico in the fall of 2020, a deep-water oil drilling operation barely escaped a disaster that could have caused another well blowout with ecological and human health consequences on the scale of 2010’s BP spill that wiped out one-fifth of the Gulf of Mexico whale’s population.
A deep water drill ship anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisiana coast in 2021.
A deep water drill ship anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Louisiana coast in 2021. (Brad Zweerink / Earthjustice)