Illustration; Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)

Activists go toe to toe with Big Oil in court to challenge Trump-era Gulf of Mexico drilling allowance

Many legal battles are springing up in the United States (U.S.) for environmental protection to be enshrined in the nation’s laws to prevent oil companies from grabbing more public waters for hydrocarbon exploration. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, is preparing once again to fight tooth and nail to overthrow a Trump-era allowance in court, which is said to enable oil drillers to kill hundreds of endangered sea creatures in the Gulf of Mexico and harm tens of thousands more.

Illustration; Source: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)

Whether the latest lawsuit move will put the future of drilling in the Gulf at stake remains to be seen. However, the case is expected to challenge the fossil fuel industry in court to determine how many lease sales the U.S. government will offer to oil and gas companies in the next five years. Environmental groups are convinced that winning this legal battle will prevent millions of tons of new CO2 pollution over the coming decades, as more lease sales result in more production and development.

Following brushes with the law due to more than one lawsuit, the controversial oil and gas Lease Sale 261 for acreage in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico was held under the Biden administration in December 2023, gathering close to a whopping $382.2 million in high bids. This is perceived as the largest amount such a lease sale has collected in almost a decade, more precisely in the last eight years.

Lease Sale 261 is the final one mandated by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and will most likely be the last offshore sale until 2025, as the final program for 2024-2029 offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico comes with the lowest number of lease sales in U.S. history, encompassing a maximum of three potential oil and gas lease sales, which are slated for 2025, 2027, and 2029, respectively. Originally, the proposal included 11 offshore lease sales, eventually settling on just three new sales.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), a U.S. trade association representing the oil and gas industry, sued the Department of the Interior (DOI) to try to force them to maximize fossil fuel development in the Gulf of Mexico in the five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program.

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Brettny Hardy, Earthjustice’s Senior Attorney at Oceans Program, highlighted: “Fossil fuels extracted from public lands and waters already generate over 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, our climate is overtaking 1.5 degrees of warming, the threshold scientists say we must avoid in order to prevent dire planetary impacts. More drilling is untenable if we want a livable future.”

Earthjustice claims that oil and gas companies are already well-positioned to continue development far into the future, as they own more than 2,000 active leases that cover more than 12 million acres of offshore territory in the Gulf, with only about 25% of those active leases having begun producing oil and gas, meaning the industry is sitting on about 9 million acres that it still has available for development.

“Furthermore, any argument that the United States needs more oil and gas drilling is absolutely false. U.S. oil production is poised to reach an all-time high of 13.3 million barrels of oil a day, which will likely make the U.S. the No. 1 crude oil producer in the world. On the back of massive new drilling, the U.S. is now a top-five oil exporter, sending our climate-killing crude around the world,” added Hardy.

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On a mission to force the government to fully address the ways oil and gas drilling threatens imperiled wildlife, including the possibility of another massive oil spill, Earthjustice is challenging in court the Trump administration’s programmatic biological opinion (BiOp) for all offshore oil and gas activities in the entire Gulf of Mexico, a policy that dictates protections for every threatened and endangered species in the Gulf.

According to the nonprofit environmental law organization, this BiOp allows the oil and gas industry to en the lives of “an extraordinary number of endangered animals,” such as about 13,000 rare sea turtles per year in the Gulf of Mexico. Without the protections the lawsuit aims to secure, Earthjustice is adamant that these species will face “a marine nightmare,” as endangered sea turtles will be subject to underwater air gun blasts, oil spills, and marine pollution.

In addition, the organization underlines that less than 100 remaining Gulf of Mexico Rice’s whales will face vessel strikes at a speed that could drive the species to extinction. Aside from this, it is said that another catastrophic oil spill, like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon tragic disaster, could devastate populations of sea turtles, whales, sharks, and other marine life in general. This is not a new legal battle as Earthjustice has been fighting this case since 2020, so the latest move is just another encore of the existing saga.

Chris Eaton, Earthjustice’s Senior Attorney of Oceans Program, remarked: “Earthjustice is suing to protect critically endangered sea turtles, save the last of the Gulf of Mexico Rice’s whales, and keep billions of barrels of oil safely underground in the Gulf of Mexico. (…) The fossil fuel industry may have billions in profits to pour into their legal schemes, but we have a movement on our side — and the best environmental attorneys in the country, too.”

U.S. urged to end rubber stamping of offshore oil drilling projects

Another crack at the Trump-era offshore drilling legacy comes at the time when Gulf and national environmental groups praised members of Congress who sent a letter on the eve of the 14th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, calling on the Department of Interior to end its routine practice of giving its blessing to offshore oil drilling projects by skipping over environmental reviews, urging the government to close the categorical exclusion loophole before the next oil spill disaster strikes.

Within the letter, representatives Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA), and Jared Huffman (D-CA) called on the Interior Department to retire its use of the “categorical exclusion” for the decades-old policy, which allows the government to exempt oil companies from undergoing environmental reviews for exploration and development plans of proposed offshore drilling projects.

Laura M. Esquivel, Earthjustice Senior Legislative Representative, outlined: “Earthjustice applauds the Members of Congress who have called on the Interior Department to finally retire its reckless policy of fast-tracking offshore oil projects at the expense of Gulf communities, fragile ecosystems, and vulnerable species. Every time the government approves another offshore oil project without a meaningful environmental review, it rolls the dice, hoping there will not be another BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. The Interior Department should heed the calls of Gulf communities and Members of Congress to end this reckless practice immediately.”

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The Members of Congress point out that, following the recommendations of the National Commission that investigated the causes of the BP disaster, which cost $17.2 billion in damage, the Interior Department under the Obama administration was on its way to discontinuing the use of the categorical exclusion for offshore oil and gas development. However, the Trump administration reversed course, and the fast-tracking policy for offshore drilling continues to be routinely used.

Brady Bradshaw, Senior Oceans Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted: “When I saw firsthand how devastating the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was to Gulf marine life, I never dreamed the oil industry would still be getting a free pass for more drilling 14 years later. Instead of waiving environmental reviews for projects that will inevitably lead to more deadly oil spills, we owe it to the endangered species in the Gulf like sea turtles and Rice’s whales to crack down on industry handouts and swiftly phase out offshore drilling.”

Environmental groups accuse the Interior Department of avoiding meaningful environmental reviews for over 90% of oil development plans or 560 out of 600 submitted in the most recent five-year period, 2018-2022, including many in ultra-deep waters where operations are said to be most precarious. Last summer, Gulf and national environmental groups petitioned the DOI to sunset its categorical exclusion policy for offshore oil and gas development.

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Marti Collins, Healthy Gulf Executive Director, said: “Our nation’s environmental laws are in place to help protect people and the environment from harm, not to be skirted to facilitate something as dirty and dangerous as offshore drilling. Our federal agencies should be ensuring something like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy never happens again, not fast-tracking more exploration and development without scrutiny: the people of the Gulf deserve it.”