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Federal judge says area for oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico must be expanded

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Federal judge says area for oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico must be expanded

Sep 23, 2023 | 11:00 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
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Federal judge says area for oil and gas leases in Gulf of Mexico must be expanded
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A federal judge has ordered the Biden administration to expand next week’s offshore oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico by 6 million acres. His ruling overturned a federal plan released last month that put limits in place to protect an endangered whale species.

U.S. District Judge David Cain in Lake Charles released his decision late Thursday night. The ruling increases the available area for the next round of leasing in the Gulf of Mexico from 67 million to 73 million acres. It also removes restrictions for sea vessels that would have curbed the hours they can operate and reduced the speed they could travel. 

The Biden administration and environmental advocates have already asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Cain’s ruling. The affected round of lease sales is scheduled for Wednesday.

Cain’s decision is a victory for Attorney General Jeff Landry, who had joined oil and gas companies in suing the Biden administration. Landry’s top attorney, Liz Murrill, was lead counsel on the case.

Landry is running for governor and Murrill is running to replace him as attorney general in this fall’s election.

“Congress is clear: lease sales must take place; so we are grateful the Judge cut through the noise and upheld the law,” Landry said in a press release.

Landry had argued that Louisiana, because the state is entitled to offshore royalties, could lose as much as $2.2 million if the leasable areas were limited. The federal government and environmental groups said the state’s estimate of economic damages are overblown, according to court documents.

Cain was sympathetic to arguments the state’s attorney general’s office made.

“The industry plaintiffs and the state of Louisiana face a substantial risk of irreparable economic harm if the injunction is not granted,” the judge wrote in his ruling.

Cain also said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s new provisions to protect Rice’s whale species appeared arbitrary. Government officials did not present any new information about the whales, which make their home in the northern Gulf of Mexico, that would justify changing the terms of the lease sales, he wrote. 

The American Petroleum Institute, Chevron USA and Shell Offshore are plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with Landry. The Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Turtle Island Restoration Network joined the federal government as defendants and were represented by EarthJustice.

EarthJustice is also seeking to stop the lease sales through a separate round of litigation. The attorneys say the leases will harm the health of people living along the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana residents.

In a statement released to the Associated Press, the environmental group accused the state and oil companies of trying to strip away environmental protections through the most recent lawsuit.

“These oil companies are looking at the full glass after one sip and calling it empty,” attorney Steve Mashuda said.