Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Lawsuit Filed to Force U.S. Interior Department Transparency on Stalled Climate Action

Interior Agency’s Lack of Response for O&G Development Records Brings Freedom of Information Lawsuit


The stop-go cycle of the Oil and Gas Industry (O&G) and its relationship to climate change is a never-ending tale that has turned into a very long, involved saga. In the latest episode, climate and conservation groups just sued the U.S. Interior Department for failing to release public records related to President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order to address climate change. These include documents behind the development of a federal oil and gas leasing report. 

On behalf of WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Western Environmental Law Center has just filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana to get records they requested months ago. The lawsuit seeks the November 2021 federal oil and gas leasing report drafts, including the version transmitted to the White House, and all internal communications about the report’s development.

Just days after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to take “appropriate action” to account for the climate costs of federally approved fossil fuel production. It directed the department to complete “a comprehensive review and reconsideration of federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices” and address “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.”

The Interior Department did issue a report in November 2021 responding to Biden’s executive order. The report however, mentions the word “climate” only three times. The report also did not address potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities and did not recommend any actions to account for the climate costs of federally approved fossil fuel production.

“President Biden’s executive order directed the Interior to complete a comprehensive review and reconsideration of the federal oil and gas leasing program in light of its significant contributions to the climate crisis,” said Barbara Chillcott, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center.

Chillcott explained the report that the Interior Department released in November merely discusses royalty rates, minimum bids and bonding rates. “The people deserve to know why their president, who campaigned on strong climate action, is failing so ‘comprehensively’ to fulfill these promises. Further, we deserve to know if the president is using our climate future as a political bargaining chip.”

The groups had previously filed a request for records from the Interior Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in December 2021. The law requires federal agencies provide records in response to FOIA requests within 20 working days. A partial response was given by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; however, they withheld more than 75% of the responsive documents. Three of the four Interior agencies subject to the FOIA request haven’t responded or provided responsive records for more than three months after the request was filed.  

“Biden’s dangerous failure to address climate in his review of federal oil and gas programs is made worse by his agency’s refusal to release public records,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We’re in a climate emergency and people deserve to know why his promise to end oil and gas leasing turned into greenwashed propaganda,” McKinnon said, noting that withholding records makes it seem like there’s “something to hide about how the disappointing report came together.” 

Attorney General Merrick Garland just issued long-anticipated FOIA guidelines to federal agencies along with a reminder that “fair and effective administration of FOIA requires that openness prevail in the face of doubt.”

“It’s intolerable that the Biden administration not only seems to be actively undermining climate action, but fighting transparency in the process,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s time to put an end to this cover up and hold President Biden and his Interior Department accountable to real action to confront the climate crisis.”

 The lawsuit comes as the Interior Department announced plans to restart federal oil and gas leasing. This would lock in more oil and gas extraction and more climate pollution at a time when scientists worldwide have found that global fossil fuel production must start declining immediately to limit long-term warming.

“It’s hard to take them seriously when they continue to hide their reasoning for shirking their commitments to addressing the climate crisis,” said Anne Hedges with Montana Environmental Information Center. “It increasingly seems like this administration is just paying lip service to tackling the climate crisis and prioritizing transparency for federal agencies.”

A preview of the next episode in the O&G saga shows once again it's time to resume federal O&G development. The Biden administration announced last week it planned to look again at its plans for oil and gas development on federal lands.

Court challenges from Republican-led states have wreaked havoc with the federal oil and gas leasing program. The Interior Department was recently blocked by a Louisiana federal judge from using the "social cost of carbon" value to factor the risks of climate change into decisions on permitting, investment and regulatory issues. Now, oil drilling is back on the table again, at least on Federal lands, after a court ruling temporarily restored a measure meant to shift federal decision-making so it factored in the cost of global warming.

No word has been given yet on whether the administration would resume oil and gas leasing auctions in the near term.

You can watch leading experts take a deep dive into the 2021 O&G Production Gap Report’s details on which illustrates that the fossil fuel production plans to meet the Paris Agreement limits are way out of sync with what is needed.


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