The ruling revokes leases sold in the Gulf of Mexico in the largest oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history. It says the Interior Department failed to consider the greenhouse gases it would produce.



Wow. A federal judge said yesterday that the largest sale of oil and gas leases in U.S. history was illegal. The lease sale was held in the Gulf of Mexico last November. It was the first under the Biden administration. And now the court ruling says the U.S. failed to account for the eventual climate impacts of drilling all that oil. Nathan Rott of NPR's climate team is covering this story. Hey. Good morning.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that climate came up here. President Biden, of course, wants to aim for a carbon-free future, although he's said that fossil fuels, of course, are being used for the moment. Why did they hold this big sale in the first place?

ROTT: Well, I mean, that's the question that a lot of environmental and climate groups were asking when it happened. You know, remember, this lease sale occurred just days after the international climate summit in Glasgow, where Biden said the U.S. was back at the climate table. And it pledged to reduce the country's outsized contribution to climate change. The Interior Department administration argued that it had to proceed with this sale because of a different federal judge's decision last summer. Right after taking office, Biden had put a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands. But more than a dozen Republican-led states sued and won, putting this lease sale back on the books in November.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. So the administration lost a case from somebody on the other side of the climate debate, effectively. And so they went ahead with the sale. But I'm still trying to figure out why this would be a matter of law. It seems like a matter of policy whether you want to have a carbon-free future. So why would a federal judge now say the lease sale was illegal?

ROTT: So environmental groups sued right after this lease sale was finished, basically arguing that the environmental analysis that the Biden administration was relying on for this sale, an analysis that was conducted under former President Donald Trump, was flawed. Basically, the analysis argued that not leasing the acreage in the Gulf would lead to more greenhouse gas emissions because it would cause more fossil fuel development in foreign countries. The federal judge in D.C. said that that decision was arbitrary and capricious last night because it didn't consider the down-the-road impacts of the fossil fuels pulled from the Gulf.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is really interesting, Nate, because this is something that oil industry supporters have been saying a lot. We do oil and gas better, more efficiently, more cleanly than other places. And so we are the ones who should do it, and it's better for the environment if we drill for oil.

ROTT: Exactly.

INSKEEP: OK. But in any case, the judge was skeptical of that. So what happens now?

ROTT: Well, so right now, the Department of Interior could decide if they want to go ahead, and they want to hold another lease sale down the road. If they wanted to do that, they're going to have to redo the math. And environmental groups are pretty sure that that won't work out.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the oil and gas industry responding to all of this?

ROTT: They're not happy. You know, they say that the Gulf of Mexico is a strategic national asset. It's important to the U.S. desires to be, you know, energy independent. That's their words. They're pressing the administration to continue leasing. And there are some onshore lease sales planned for the first quarter of this year in North Dakota and Montana.

INSKEEP: OK, that's interesting. But let's just review here. The administration didn't want to do this lease sale, got sued, had to do the lease sale, then got stopped in another lawsuit. Could this, in the end, actually help the administration meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions?

ROTT: You know, it'll have an impact, for sure. Roughly a quarter of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil fuels developed on public lands. But, you know, it's just a small sliver compared to the entire emissions. And if we're aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, we still have a very long way to go.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nathan Rott, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GODTET'S "CACTUS DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.