The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the Trump administration unlawfully auctioned off millions of acres to oil companies in two 2018 Gulf of Mexico lease sales. Reversing a lower court’s decision, the appellate court held that the federal officials arbitrarily relied on inadequate environmental analyses of the sales’ effects and relied on incorrect assumptions about the sufficiency of safety regulations, violating a bedrock environmental law.
Earthjustice, on behalf of Healthy Gulf (f.k.a. Gulf Restoration Network), the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the two Trump lease sales, asserting that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) failed to fully analyze the risks that the immense sales posed to people, wildlife, and the environment. On April 21, 2020, the D.C. federal district court ruled that the sales were valid. The groups promptly appealed the ruling to the D.C. Circuit.
The 2018 Trump sales relied on a faulty evaluation that violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by wrongly presuming the federal government was adequately enforcing safety and environmental regulations to limit risks and harm to the Gulf from oil and gas operations. Inadequate regulation, like that which contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, increases the risks of a catastrophic spill from oil and gas activities. As a result of its flawed assumption, BOEM failed to fully weigh the environmental risks of holding these lease sales.
The groups accordingly asked the court to declare the two lease sales unlawful and to vacate any leases issued pursuant to them.
Today’s victory follows the landmark January 2022 ruling by the D.C. District Court that invalidated Gulf Lease Sale 257, which held the Interior Department accountable for grossly underestimating the climate impacts before deciding to hold the largest oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. Issuing new leases would only further cement the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels at a time when science and policy are demanding an urgent clean energy transition. Instead of expanding harmful drilling, experts say the U.S. must protect our public lands and waters and move away from reliance on fossil fuels.
These twin rulings require Interior to start with a blank slate and consider the full environmental costs associated with auctioning off U.S. public waters to the fossil fuel industry. Conservation groups are confident that a full assessment will lead to the undeniable conclusion that holding a lease sale will cause irreparable harm to Gulf communities.
Earthjustice senior attorney, Chris Eaton issued the following statement:
“Today’s ruling is a win for Gulf communities who are on the frontlines of climate change and our global dependence on oil and gas. The court’s decision reaffirms that BOEM is failing to consider the full effects of these sales and should send a strong message to the administration and the oil and gas industry that the time to transition to clean energy and away from offshore drilling is now. With the climate crisis upon us, the administration has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect Gulf communities, waters, and wildlife and match its bold climate promises with actions by ensuring we stop auctioning off our waters to the fossil fuel industry.”
“A full assessment of impacts borne by the oil and gas companies on Gulf communities is long overdue,” said executive director of Healthy Gulf Cynthia Sarthou. “We welcome this ruling as a great step for BOEM to face the generational impacts offshore leasing has had on low income communities, fishing communities, and communities of color in terms of public health, environmental degradation, and climate impacts.”
“Gulf Coast communities have been treated as sacrifice zones for far too long, and we are glad to see the court invalidate these reckless actions by the Trump administration to ignore serious safety and climate concerns and sell out these communities to the oil industry,” said Sierra Club Associate Attorney Rebecca McCreary. “Now the Biden administration has a critical opportunity to change course and protect the Gulf Coast from expanded offshore drilling.”
“This is great news for our climate, Gulf wildlife, and Gulf communities at risk of oil industry pollution,” said Oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity Kristen Monsell. “We’re thrilled the court saw the agency’s meager environmental analysis for what it was. But no amount of analysis can change the fact that more oil and gas activity means more oil spills, more climate pollution and more harm to wildlife and communities. We need to end new fossil fuel extraction in our oceans.”