'A' is for Accountability

Now is the time to stop giving away coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska to the fossil fuel industry

Thursday, October 6 is the very last day to push back against a federal “Five-Year Plan” that would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling. Here’s what you need to know about this plan, how you can engage, and why it’s crucial to demand that the Biden administration choose Alternative A: the No Action Alternative, guaranteeing no new offshore oil and gas development in the plan.

What is the “Five-Year Plan” and why does it matter?

This document determines whether, and where, public offshore waters will be leased to industry for underwater oil and gas development. Every offshore oil spill, such as the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf, began with an oil lease. Currently, the Department of the Interior is finalizing the next Five-Year Plan, which contemplates holding up to 11 new offshore lease sales between 2023-2028 in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Approving this plan would lock in offshore oil and gas development for 40 to 70 years, extending our reliance on fossil fuels for the better part of a century, despite the glaring need for an urgent transition to clean energy. The Biden administration must select Alternative A: the No Action Alternative, guaranteeing no new oil and gas development in the plan.

Why should we be concerned about new federal offshore oil and gas drilling?

Apart from the obvious concerns about oil spills, there are two main reasons for opposition: First, offshore drilling takes a significant toll on the health, culture, and economic wellbeing of coastal communities. Second, green-lighting new federal offshore drilling is the exact opposite of what needs to happen if we are going to transition away from fossil fuels and take meaningful action on climate change. There’s no question about it: Extracting and burning the oil and gas that lies beneath the seafloor will only bring more climate chaos like heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. It’s also just plain silly to issue new oil and gas leases when we’re getting ready to invest billions in clean-energy technology, which will reduce demand for oil by the time these leases would even be developed.

The case against the potential Cook Inlet offshore lease sale in Alaska is clearly articulated by Chief John Kvasnikoff, of the Native Village of Nanwalek, in this opinion piece. A few examples of how Gulf communities would be negatively impacted by new federal offshore drilling include:

  • The potential for catastrophic drilling disasters, especially in an area more likely to be hard-hit by hurricanes
  • Toxic refinery emissions, a consequence of the infrastructure that necessarily accompanies new drilling, that increase the risk of illnesses and chronic disease
  • Already being overburdened by toxic industrial emissions
  • Losing even more land to pipelines, and reduced property values due to industry

What happened with the last five-year plan?

The previous five-year plan covered the timeframe from mid-2017 through mid-2022 and contained a total of 11 lease sales. The Department of the Interior held seven out of the 11. But a federal court struck down the eighth, Lease Sale 257 in the Gulf of Mexico, in response to a lawsuit Earthjustice filed on behalf of Healthy Gulf and others. The judge ruled that Interior had failed to consider the climate change impacts of Lease Sale 257. Interior declined to hold the ninth, 10th, and 11th lease sales scheduled in its five-year plan before the plan expired at the end of June, noting a “lack of industry interest” in Alaska and considering other factors affecting the Gulf.

So, those last four lease sales aren’t happening, right?

Unfortunately, those cancelled lease sales are now back on the table. In August, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a landmark bill that invests billions to fight climate change – but also includes harmful provisions related to energy development that unfairly burden environmental justice communities, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. The IRA includes language requiring Interior to issue leases from Lease Sale 257 in the Gulf — and requires Interior to carry out the other three lease sales in the Gulf and Alaska that it previously declined to hold.

Does that mean we’ll see new offshore oil development from those lease sales?

Not necessarily. Those lease sales must still comply with the law and can still be challenged in court. For example, any lease sale must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), our nation’s bedrock environmental law that facilitates better decisions that are more protective of the environment and public health. Our litigation on behalf of Gulf communities and wildlife has held these auctions accountable to the law before. Most recently in August, an appeals court sent a pair of 2018 Gulf lease sales back to Interior for reconsideration. We will continue our legal fight against Lease Sale 257 to force full compliance with the law, and we can challenge in court any or all of the three additional offshore oil lease sales in the IRA if Interior fails to comply fully with all federal laws in proceeding with those sales.

How does all of this relate to offshore wind?

Another IRA provision prohibits the issuance of leases for offshore wind development unless an offshore oil-and-gas lease sale offering at least 60 million acres has occurred in the year prior to the issuance of the wind leases. This is clearly an attempt to tie renewable-energy development to oil and gas for the next decade and hamstring our transition away from fossil fuels. However, existing oil and gas leases would support current oil-production levels well into the next decade. Following the passage of the IRA, the Biden administration should use the authority it already has to continue with responsible wind development, reform the federal leasing program, and end new oil and gas leasing. The administration must still make choices about where, how often, and under what conditions and protections it will decide to offer any new oil and gas leases.

What Can I Do?

Tell the Department of Interior to select Alternative A: the No Action Alternative, guaranteeing no new oil and gas development in the 2023-2028 Five-Year Plan. There is no reason to approve a new plan charting a course toward even more new oil-and-gas leasing, when it’s clear that shifting to clean energy is the only way to deliver climate justice. Management of our public waters should be in line with the administration’s own stated climate goals.

Based in the Northwest office in Seattle, Steve is the managing attorney of Earthjustice's Oceans Program.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.

A tension-leg oil production platform burns off unrecoverable gas and leaves a plume of smoke in the Gulf of Mexico.
A tension-leg oil production platform burns off unrecoverable gas and leaves a plume of smoke in the Gulf of Mexico. (Land by Sea / Getty Images)