Court overturns ruling that blocked Biden’s oil drilling hiatus

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A federal appeals judge overturned a lower court’s decision that prevented the Biden administration from suspending the auctioning of oil and gas drilling rights in states and waters, a key campaign promise in the president’s plan to combat climate change.

On Wednesday, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturned a district court decision last year in favor of Louisiana and other oil-rich states that rely on oil and gas royalties to fund their governments. District Judge Patrick E. Higginbotham sent the case back to the lower court, writing that his original decision to stop Biden’s moratorium on leasing was too vague to be valid.

The latest ruling could help revive Biden’s efforts to reform the federal government‘s oil and gas leasing program in the fight against global warming. Fossil fuel emissions mined on federal states account for nearly a quarter of the country’s heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution.

But the question of whether the oil and gas leasing program can be curtailed to counteract global warming has moved from one federal court to another without a seemingly lasting decision. Shutting down any new production of oil and gas from public lands is further complicated by high gasoline price policies and the recently passed Democrat climate, health and tax package.

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A compromise Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) won in that bill mandates new oil and gas sales off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico, which climate activists had opposed. The legislation, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, also ties the construction of wind turbines along the East Coast and solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest to ongoing oil and gas auctions.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the Biden administration is reviewing Wednesday’s decision.

During the 2020 race, Biden vowed to halt new oil and gas drilling — “dot, dot, dot,” he said on the campaign trail. One of Biden’s first acts was to suspend leasing to review the program.

But U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty in Louisiana struck down Biden’s Jan. 27, 2021 order, dealing a major blow to the president’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the time. The decision by Doughty, a representative appointed by President Donald Trump, underscores the challenge of curbing fossil fuel production if current law directs the government to conduct auctions. The authority to suspend oil and gas leases rests “solely with Congress,” Doughty wrote.

After the moratorium was lifted, the Interior Department conducted the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in the country’s history, putting 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico up for auction.

But only a fraction of that area — about 1.7 million acres — was actually sold, and before the leases could go into effect, another federal judge voided the entire sale. That U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia decision found that the government had justified the sale with an erroneous analysis written during the Trump administration that assumed climate impacts would be worse if the acreage would not be sold.

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