WASHINGTON – Both Republican and Democratic senators pressed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for answers Wednesday after a federal court blocked the Biden administration’s suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters.
In a sharply worded ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Louisiana ordered that plans for lease sales continue in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Alaska and in “all eligible onshore properties” nationwide. The ruling came after President Joe Biden shut down oil and gas lease sales from the nation’s vast public lands and waters in his first days in office, citing worries about climate change.
“It's a fresh decision. Our department is reviewing the judge’s opinion as we speak and consulting with the Justice Department,” Haaland said under questioning at a Senate hearing on her department’s budget.
“We will respect the judge’s decision. Any other information will be forthcoming,” she said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee, said she was flabbergasted that Haaland did not address the court ruling — or the government's vast oil and gas leasing program — in her prepared remarks.
“I was really struck by the fact that in 17 pages of discussions outlining the budget there really is no recognition for the production on our federal land and the role that plays,” Murkowski said.
In light of the court ruling, she told Haaland: “I expect to hear your plans to resume implementation of those lease sales. We expect you to follow the law."
Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, responded, “I will always follow the law."
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana also appeared impatient with Haaland, saying the review ordered by Biden — nearly two months before Haaland took office in mid-March — appeared to be dragging on.
“As this review rolls on, a leasing pause gives folks in the oil and gas industry a lot of uncertainty," Tester said. “It’s getting harder and harder to extend that trust without hard information in the review.”
Tester asked Haaland when the review will “be ready for prime time.”
Officials have “said all along early summer ... so my guess is they’ll be getting it sometime in the near future,” Haaland said.
“I'm taking that as it’ll be out in the next month,” Tester replied. Haaland did not commit to a firm timetable.
The back-and-forth over the leasing pause and the court decision showed the stakes of Biden's effort to reform — and likely scale back — the multibillion-dollar leasing program without crushing a significant sector of the U.S. economy.
Doughty's ruling, in a lawsuit filed by Louisiana Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and officials in 12 other states, is a blow to Biden’s efforts to transition the nation away from fossil fuels and stave off the worst effects of climate change, including catastrophic droughts, floods and wildfires.
Biden and Haaland have said the leasing ban is only temporary, though officials have declined to say how long it will last. And it’s unclear how much legal authority the government has to stop drilling on about 23 million acres (93,000 square kilometers) previously leased to energy companies.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the judge's decision “a victory for the rule of law and American energy workers.''
Biden's “illegal ban (on new lease sales) has hurt workers and deprived Wyoming and other states of a principal source of revenue that they use for public education,” Barrasso said. “President Biden should immediately rescind his punishing ban and let Americans get back to work.”
Following Biden's Jan. 27 order, the Interior Department canceled oil and gas lease sales from public lands through June — affecting Nevada, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as offshore sales in the Gulf of Mexico. The department also abandoned a public comment period for a planned offshore sale in Alaska.
The 13 states that sued said that the administration bypassed comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays can be undertaken and said that the moratorium would cost the states money and jobs.
Doughty, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Donald Trump in 2017, said “millions and possibly billions of dollars are at stake” for local governments and other public uses.