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Interior Secretary Accused of Defying U.S. Judge on Oil Leasing

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Jul 27, 2021
(Bloomberg) Six weeks after a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to resume selling oil and gas leases on federal land, there’s no sign it has and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland struggled Tuesday to explain why.

“We are evaluating our options,” Haaland told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amid sharp criticism from Republicans. “There’s a lot of work that goes into moving that forward.”

A Louisiana-based federal district judge issued a preliminary injunction June 15 against President Joe Biden’s order to pause lease sales on federal land and waters so it could be considered in light of its climate impacts. The judge ordered Interior to immediately restart leasing but the agency hasn’t scheduled any auctions or rescheduled sales postponed earlier this year.

Haaland faced withering criticism from no fewer than seven of the 20 senators on the committee amid growing bipartisan frustration with the halt of new leasing in areas that provide roughly a quarter of U.S. oil production.

“The pause is effectively defying the federal judge’s order to continue,” Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, said.

Haaland conceded that “technically, I suppose, you could say the pause is still in place.” But she insisted the agency is complying with the court order and is moving forward on releasing an interim report to guide future leasing decisions. The report is expected to recommend boosting the royalty rates companies pay to extract fossil fuels, among other changes.

Oil industry advocates have said the Interior Department can swiftly schedule lease sales by relying on the government’s earlier environmental analysis, including assessments conducted by the Trump administration. However, conservationists argue that greater scrutiny is needed to ensure those auctions comply with federal laws, including of how oil and gas development from newly sold leases will affect climate change.

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“It’s not a switch you can turn on,” Haaland said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into a lease sale.”

Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi pushed unsuccessfully for a more definitive timetable.

“There’s just an expectation that when a court order stepped in and said ‘hey this is not legal to just stop this indefinitely,’ that there’s actually going to be progress made toward this,” Lankford said.

Haaland’s repeated assurances that the report was coming “soon” provoked scoffing by Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska.

“I’m not going to ask you when you think it’s going to be coming because I think I know what your answer is,” Murkowski said. “I hope you can sense the frustration that so many of us have in anticipating this and wondering when we will be able to expect that you’ll be in compliance with the judge’s order.”

The frustration crossed party lines. Chairman Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said that he “supported the administration’s desire to pause leases,” but “we are now well into the early summer timeline when we were told the review would be completed.”

“We need a plan to move forward with responsible oil and gas leasing, both onshore and offshore, to maintain our energy independence,” Manchin said.

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