Energy & Environment

Appeals court axes ruling against Biden oil leasing pause, sends back for further proceedings

An oil drilling rig is pictured at sunset, Monday, March 7, 2022, in El Reno, Okla.
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
An oil drilling rig is pictured at sunset, Monday, March 7, 2022, in El Reno, Okla.

An appeals court on Wednesday tossed an injunction that halted the Biden administration’s pause on new oil and gas leasing and sent the case back to a lower court for further proceedings. 

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the injunction didn’t make clear what exactly the Biden administration is and isn’t allowed to do.

The appeals court didn’t weigh in on whether the lower court was right to block the oil and gas leasing pause, saying the lower court first needed to deal with the procedural issue.

“We cannot reach the merits of the Government’s challenge when we cannot ascertain from the record what conduct—an unwritten agency policy, a written policy outside of the Executive Order, or the Executive Order itself—is enjoined,” found the three-judge panel made up of a Reagan, Clinton and Obama appointee. 

“Our review of [Administrative Procedure Act] claims must begin by determining if there was final agency action. Where, as here, it is unclear what final agency action the district court predicated its order upon, we are unable to reach the merits of the appeal,” the panel added. 

At the beginning of his tenure, President Biden paused new oil and gas leasing on public lands and in public waters — preventing the start of the process for new oil and gas production offshore and on lands owned by the federal government. 

Biden’s pause did not interrupt existing drilling and also did not prevent new drilling on private lands. 

Last year, a federal judge in Louisiana halted the moratorium while the case against it played out, arguing that there were likely to be losses to the states as a result. 

In an executive order directing the pause, Biden said it should be carried out “pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices”

That review has been completed, and the Interior Department released a report on it in November, but the administration is still fighting for the pause in court. 

Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said via email, “We’re reviewing the decision.”

The Inflation Reduction Act, the new climate, tax and health care law that Biden signed on Tuesday, requires the department to hold additional lease sales, including one that’s required by the end of this year. 

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