A federal appeals court ruled Aug. 17 that when a district court halted the Biden administration’s moratorium on federal oil and gas lease sales, the district court failed to use sufficient clarity and specifics in its explanation.
The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated and remanded the lower court’s injunction that had forced a resumption of lease sales.
The US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana decided June 15, 2021, that the Interior Department’s leasing moratorium violated three laws—the Mineral Leasing Act, which requires quarterly onshore leasing; the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which requires the administration to created and follow a 5-year leasing program; and the Administrative Procedure Act, which imposes procedural requirements on regulatory actions (OGJ Online, June 16, 2021).
President Biden had issued Executive Order 14008 initiating the moratorium—or “pause,” as the administration called it—but the district court concluded that Interior did not have authority to disregard laws because of an executive order.
The Biden administration argued on appeal that when the district court issued its injunction forcing a resumption of leasing, the court failed to specify whether the injunction was a response to the presidential action or a written or unwritten decision by Interior.
A three-judge panel of the appellate court agreed with the administration that the failure to specify that point was a violation of Rule 65(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 65(d) requires that an injunction be supported by specifically stated terms or reasons.
“We cannot reach the merits of the government’s challenge when we cannot ascertain from the record what conduct—an unwritten agency policy, a written policy outside of the Executive Order, or the Executive Order itself—is enjoined,” the appeals court said.
The plaintiff states argued before the appeals court that the lower court’s opinion referred to an unwritten policy. But the district court may have left the door open for appeal by its discursive memorandum in support of its opinion, a memorandum that included a section titled, “Is there a Pause?”
The appeals court opinion said, “The memorandum did not refer to an unwritten policy when it defined ‘Pause,’ and the section titled, ‘Is there a Pause?” did not state whether the Pause was unwritten.”
That raises the possibility that, on remand, the district court can issue a new injunction and clarify it by specifying that the injunction is, in fact, intended to address an unwritten “pause” policy—essentially a policy of inaction on leasing.
The case is Louisiana v. Biden. Louisiana led 13 states in objecting to the moratorium.