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Federal judge says Biden cannot pause new leases for wells on public land

WASHINGTON – A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden government’s suspension of new state and waterfront oil and gas leases as the first major legal hurdle to President Biden’s quest to reduce fossil fuel pollution and preserve public land.

Judge Terry A. Doughty of the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana issued an injunction against the government Tuesday, saying that the authority to suspend offshore oil and gas leases “rests solely with Congress” because it is the legislature that originally made the state and its waters available for lease.

Judge Doughty also ruled that 13 states suing the government for suspending new leases “have shown that there is a significant likelihood that President Biden has exceeded his powers”.

Jeff Landry, the Louisiana Republican attorney general who is the senior attorney general of 12 other states, all Republican, filed a lawsuit in March to repeal the White House order that temporarily suspended new oil and gas leases in the state and waters . Mr Biden had signed the contract in his first week of office in January and said he wanted to take a break to review the lease.

Judge Doughty ruled that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and her agency “are hereby prohibited and prevented from pausing new oil and gas leases on public land or in offshore waters” pending state litigation against the government.

He wrote that the new letting break should end nationwide and pointed out that such blanket injunctions against federal lawsuits are extremely rare. However, he concluded that the 13 states have proven that their economies could be irreparably damaged by the drilling pause.

The 13 states have argued that the break was illegal because it was pronounced without a formal public comment period. Louisiana was joined by Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.

The suspension of the leases was one of the most prominent and controversial political moves by a president who has made climate protection a central point on his agenda.

Progressive activists hailed the move as a sign that Mr Biden is serious about stopping fossil fuel production, the burning of which is the main cause of global warming. Republicans and the oil industry have criticized it as illegal and as an example of government overwhelming power that could harm the economy and displace thousands of oil and gas workers.

A Home Office spokeswoman, which administers state and state oil and gas leases, said in a statement that the administration is reviewing the ruling and will comply.

The spokeswoman, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the Home Office was still working on an interim report to Mr Biden on the state of federal oil and gas drilling programs, as well as recommendations on the future of the federal role in drilling on public land.

It is expected that Ms. Haaland will send these recommendations to Mr. Biden later this summer.

In a statement, Mr. Landry called the restraining order “a victory not only for the rule of law but also for the thousands of workers who produce affordable energy for Americans. We appreciate that federal courts have recognized that President Biden is completely outside of his jurisdiction in attempting to land oil and gas leases.

The Democrats in Congress said they would press ahead with legislative efforts to restrict oil drilling on public land.

“We need to update our fossil fuel leasing laws across the board to provide cleaner, more sustainable standards of use for our public resources, as this committee is trying to do,” said Raul Grijalva, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee of the House. “Our economic and environmental future should not be the subject of decisions based on industry-funded science or opportunistic grievances that we heard only after President Biden was sworn in.”

Ms. Haaland, a former environmental activist, once said the federal government should ban all new hydraulic fracturing or fracking, an environmentally damaging form of oil and gas drilling, from public properties.

Today she heads the agency that oversees the country’s 500 million hectares of public land, including national parks and current oil and gas wells.

She has also been tasked with overseeing Mr Biden’s “30 by 30” initiative, which calls for 30 percent of public land and water to be preserved by 2030.

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