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Biden administration holds massive lease sale for oil and gas development

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At the big international climate conference that just finished, President Biden called climate change an existential threat to human existence as we know it.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And that's why my administration is working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words.

KELLY: Today, though, the Biden administration took quite a different action - overseeing one of the largest oil and gas lease sales in American history. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The science is unequivocal. To slow a rapidly warming climate, reducing the risk of floods, wildfires and extreme heat, humans need to rapidly move away from fossil fuels. Yet today, the government held a lease sale for more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas development. Drew Caputo is an attorney at the environmental organization Earthjustice.

DREW CAPUTO: By the government's own estimate, those leases could produce more than a billion barrels of oil over multiple decades into the future.

ROTT: Not to mention an additional 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

CAPUTO: This is an administration that campaigned on dealing with climate change. And that's why this lease sale is so disappointing because it is the most significant action that the administration will have taken yet on oil and gas development, and it goes in the wrong direction.

ROTT: The Biden administration says it too is disappointed. It argues that its hands were tied after a federal judge sided with 14 Republican attorneys earlier this summer, ending the administration's temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on all federal lands and waters. Hilary Tompkins was the solicitor of the Interior Department under the Obama administration.

HILARY TOMPKINS: They wanted to pause to give an opportunity to assess the programs for oil and gas leasing and to take a specific look at the greenhouse gas emission impacts.

ROTT: Idea being that the current leasing program doesn't do enough to take climate impacts into account. The Biden administration is appealing the Louisiana judge's injunction. But in the meantime, lease sales like today's and others scheduled for early next year in Montana, Wyoming and other Western states are moving forward.

TOMPKINS: They can be held in contempt if they don't comply with the court order. And so I think they're looking at the litigation risk and making a judgment call. And that's why they're doing it.

ROTT: Attorneys like Caputo, who challenged the lease sale, say there are actions the administration could have taken to stop it. But it didn't. Meanwhile, with oil prices high, interest has been strong. Erik Milito is president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group for offshore energy development. He says more than 300 tracks in the Gulf received bids even before today.

ERIK MILITO: And that's one of the highest levels of interest in leasing that we've seen in a number of years.

ROTT: Now, there is a chance that the Biden administration could slow roll development on those tracks. And environmental groups are expected to bring more legal challenges. But Milito says today's lease sale shows that oil and gas development in the U.S. is not going anywhere soon.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.