Climate change beats Big Oil and Biden in court


Last Thursday was not a good day for Big Oil and it was a dubious one for the Biden administration. But it was a big win for climate change and climate science. The ruling will impact decisions on federal lands, mandating that the government take account of climate change in the application of environmental assessments.

A district court judge in Washington D.C. canceled oil and gas leases covering more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, auctioned at a cost of around $192 million – the largest lease sale in U.S. history. Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon Mobil had bid for the rights to drill in about 1.7 million acres in the area offered by the government for sale.

The reason? Simple, the Biden administration did not account for the impact of drilling on climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). 

Environmental groups argued that the environmental assessment (under the NEPA Act) relied on outdated information by the Trump administration, which had concluded drilling would not increase GHG.  They court agreed — the government had failed to consider newer science proving offshore drilling impacts rising global temperatures. And not only that, the judge took into account how the international consumption of oil drilled in the lease area (and not just U.S. consumption) would add to rising temperatures and climate change. The government was arbitrary and capricious in its decision, the judge said – in other words it was wrong. It’s back to the drawing board for the Biden administration, and time for a whole new analysis — this time with climate change and the best available science front and center.

The Biden administration hasn’t emerged unscathed. The auction went ahead on Nov. 17, 2021– five days after the UN climate summit COP26 ended, where the administration was loudly pledging to reduce GHG and tackle climate change. To be fair, Biden’s administration had been successfully sued by 13 attorneys general over Biden’s executive order to halt the sale of leases. On that basis, the Interior Department argued that they had no choice but to sell the leases or be held in contempt of court. But most environmental groups and analysts believe that they had other options, including a fresh environmental and scientific analysis. This might have been a good idea especially as they have to do one now and during a campaign stop in February 2020, Biden promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”

No question about it, this ruling is a game-changer. Even if the administration isn’t living up to its promises, the courts are demanding that the government take climate change into account in decisions impacting ecology, ecosystems and the environment. And Biden is being held accountable by voters. 

Big Oil took another beating, but this ruling should be a wakeup call for any industry or company whose activities impact climate change — and not just looking at where their products are sold in the U.S., but internationally. Climate change is a reality, and we’ll all increasingly feel the consequences. That reality applies to companies that will feel the business consequences if they don’t take action today.

Deborah Brosnan, Ph.D., is an environmental scientist and a marine resilience specialist, working to bolster science in decision-making involving the environment, endangered species, energy development, sea-level rise, climate change and environmental hazards.

Tags Climate change Deborah Brosnan Fossil fuels Judiciary oil drilling public lands

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