Obama Admin Quietly Enables Oil and Gas Drilling on Public Lands and Waters, Weakens Endangered Species Act

Offshore oil platform.

As eyes turned to the most viewed presidential debate in U.S. history, the Obama administration meanwhile quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million acres for offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and delivered a blow to the Endangered Species Act. 

The Endangered Species Act rule change followed a multi-year lobbying campaign by the oil and gas industry and occurred the morning before the debate unfolded.

The leasing decisions came just weeks earlier, with the most recent one taking place as an online rather than in-person drilling lease auction, the product of industry and U.S. government backlash against efforts such as the Keep It In The Ground campaign which aim to block fossil fuel project development.

Collectively, the announcements coincide with the release of a report by the group Oil Change International, which crunched the “climate math” numbers and concluded that governments must stop both permitting new fossil fuel projects and tapping into a huge swath of existing oil and gas fields and coal mines.

First Online Lease

As chronicled by DeSmog, in recent months the Obama administration has increasingly shifted toward holding online auctions for oil and gas on public lands and in public waters, in backlash against the Keep It In The Ground movement.

One politically connected company in particular — EnergyNet — stands to profit from the shift away from in-person oral auctions for fossil fuel leases, which are open to the public and provide a more visible platform for protests. 

On September 20 EnergyNet conducted the second ever solely online auction on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). EnergyNet also ran the first such auction as a pilot test in 2009. This latest auction was held for oil and gas leases located on over 4,000 acres of public lands in the Homochitto and Bienville National Forests in Mississippi. 

I am pleased that Eastern States was able to be the first BLM office to use this new authority,” BLM Eastern States Director Karen Mouritsen said in a press release. “The success of this effort builds upon the experience of other government agencies with online auctions, and gives the BLM another tool to efficiently administer its oil and gas program.”

Magnum Producing was the company that came out on top in this online auction, winning every single parcel of land and paying only $18.23 per acre, according to BLM data.

Image Credit: U.S. Bureau of Land Management

119 Million Acres in the Gulf of Mexico

Less than a week before the BLM Eastern States online auction, the Obama administration announced another lease auction, scheduled for March 2017, in which 47 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama will be available for offshore drilling. 

As one of the most productive basins in the world, the Gulf of Mexico remains a critical component of the Administration’s domestic energy strategy to create jobs, foster economic opportunities, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil,” U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a press release. “The exploration and development of the Gulf of Mexico’s vital energy resources will continue to help power our nation and drive our economy.”

Just weeks earlier on August 19, BOEM, which is administering the Gulf offshore drilling lease auction, opened up for public comment a 2018 lease of another 72 million acres of Gulf of Mexico waters to the oil and gas industry. That brings the total to 119 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico now up for grabs in the next two years, which will be under the watch of a new presidential administration. 

Gutting the Endangered Species Act

On the morning of the presidential debate, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled rules which are expected to increase the difficulty of listing animals and plants under the protections of the Endangered Species Act. 

The new rules “restrict the ability of ordinary citizens, scientists, and public-interest organizations to obtain Endangered Species Act protections for species on the brink of extinction,” explained the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in a press release. “The new rules eliminate the ability of the public to submit multispecies petitions and require that 30 days prior to submitting a petition, the petitioner must notify every state where an imperiled species may live.”

According to CBD, these changes have long been on the oil and gas industry wish list. CBD also told DeSmog via email that the organization sees it as a form of “appeasement” to the oil and gas industry, as well as right-wing states and politicians. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, praised the Obama administration for the change but said more needs to be done by the next administration.

“This announcement is a call for help from the administration and an acknowledgement that ESA is broken,” said Bishop (sic).

“These revisions give the appearance that state input will improve and that closed-door settlements will no longer drive petition and listing decisions. Unfortunately, serial environmental litigation will continue to drive ESA policy, and there is nothing the agencies can do about it unless we reform the underlying statute. No matter who wins the White House in November, the law’s failings necessitate reform.”

Bishop, in citing “closed-door” legal settlements, echoed a “sue and settle” talking point deployed by the likes of industry-funded groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), and Endangered Species Watch.

In a report titled “Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce describes the concept as “when an agency intentionally relinquishes its statutory discretion by accepting lawsuits from outside groups that effectively dictate the priorities and duties of the agency through legally binding, court-approved settlements negotiated behind closed doors.”

Bishop's top campaign contributors for his re-election campaign include BP, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and others.

Anti-ESA Advocacy

The oil and gas industry at-large has engaged in a years-long lobbying and influence-peddling campaign to gut the Endangered Species Act, led in the forefront by WEA and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). IPAA created the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry front group, Energy in Depth.

“The industry takes seriously its obligations to protect species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” says WEA, which hosts a “wildlife committee” meeting every month. “However, misuse of the ESA can directly prevent energy development, ranching, farming, timber, mining, and other productive uses of the land. Far too often the ESA has been used as a means to prevent or delay responsible economic activity rather than for species protection.”

Commenters on the proposed rule included fracking companies such as ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, and pipeline giant Williams Companies, as well as groups like IPAA, American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and an industry-funded front group called the Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition. Some of them — such as Devon and the Chamber — cited “sue and settle” in their submitted comments.

Image Credit: Regulations.gov

Environmental and community groups submitted their own comments on the proposed rule change, sounding the alarm about the ability to petition government if the rule is implemented.

“There would be an enormous chilling effect on citizens’ fundamental right to petition their government if other federal agencies emulate the rules the Services are proposing here,” they wrote. “The effectiveness of petitions as a driver of environmental protection and social justice would be diminished immediately, and would undeniably harm the interests of the petitioner.”

The new rule goes into effect on October 27, roughly two weeks before Election Day.

Main photo: Oil Platform Credit: CipiotaCC BY-SA 3.0