Sale of federal oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico off again pending hearings on whale protections

Nov 2, 2023, 9:54 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An upcoming sale of federal Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases was officially postponed Thursday amid legal fights over protections for an endangered species of whale.

A federal appellate panel last week paused a separate appeals panel’s order that the sale be held next Wednesday. Oil industry advocates had pressed President Joe Biden’s administration to go ahead with the sale anyway. But the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it was postponing the event because of the legal uncertainties heading into a Nov. 13 appeals court hearing.

The lease sale, called for in 2022 climate legislation that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act, was announced earlier this year. The available tracts covered a broad area of Gulf waters off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 27. But BOEM announced in August that it was scaling back the amount of acreage oil companies would be allowed to bid on from 73 million acres (30 million hectares) to 67 million acres (27 million hectares). That followed a proposed legal settlement between the administration and environmentalists in a lawsuit over protections for an endangered whale species.

Oil companies and the state of Louisiana objected to the reduction, setting off a still-brewing legal battle.

A federal judge in southwest Louisiana ordered the sale to go on at its original scale, without the whale protections, which also included regulations involving vessel speed and personnel. That led to an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In late September, a panel of that court refused to block the federal judge’s order but amended it to push the sale back to Nov. 8, so the administration would have more time to prepare. But last week, a different panel stayed that order and set a hearing on the merits of the case for Nov. 13.

Oil industry representatives and industry supporters in Congress pressed BOEM to hold the full-sized sale on Nov. 8 despite the lack of a court resolution. Senate energy committee Chairman Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who has clashed with Biden and other fellow Democrats on energy policy, and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming both said the sale should go on.

But the administration made the latest delay official in a Thursday statement.

“Until the court rules, BOEM cannot be certain of which areas or stipulations may be included in the sale notice,” the BOEM statement said.

Reaction against the decision came quickly from the American Petroleum Institute and the National Ocean Industries Association. “Once again, the Administration is standing against domestic oil and gas production,” NOIA’s president, Erik Milito, said in a written statement.

An attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice said it approves of BOEM’s decision, adding that a sale would have taken place Sept. 27 but for the industry’s objection to the whale protection measures.

“We are glad the Administration is complying with the Court’s order and allowing time to resolve the ongoing case, when critical protections for one of the most endangered whales in the world are at stake,” attorney George Torgun said in an email.

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Sale of federal oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico off again pending hearings on whale protections