A federal appeals court has delayed the deadline for a pending Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease sale to Nov. 8. Lease Sale 261 was scheduled for Sept. 27, but the Biden administration is continuing a legal fight over its attempt to change the terms of the sale.
A district court issued a preliminary injunction Sept. 21 requiring the Interior Department to go ahead with the sale no later than Sept. 30 without the restrictions on acreage and ship movements that were added a month before the planned sale (OGJ Online, Sept. 22, 2023).
Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) filed an emergency request asking the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to allow the sale to go ahead with BOEM’s extra restrictions. Instead, a three-judge panel Sept. 25 only ordered the deadline delay—leaving unsettled what will happen when the appellate court considers the substance of the arguments in more detail.
“This ruling by an administrative panel is subject to review once the appeal of the preliminary injunction is submitted to a merits panel of this court,” said the order.
BOEM issued a statement Sept. 26 saying it will hold Lease Sale 261 no later than Nov. 8 with its extra restrictions removed from the sale in compliance with the preliminary injunction. A revised final notice of sale will be issued in the coming days, the agency said.
The extra restrictions were announced to protect Rice’s whales, an endangered species only known to live in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico in an area where no oil and gas leasing occurs. BOEM in January had concluded that no extra restrictions were needed to protect the whales, then the agency reversed itself after the Biden administration reached a deal with environmental groups in another court case.
BOEM announced in late August a withdrawal of about 6 million acres from the sale and inclusion of sharp restrictions on the movements of ships in support of oil and gas operations. Those acres stretch across the Gulf in a band of territory considered highly prospective for oil and gas discoveries.
The US District Court for the Western District of Louisiana ruled the extra restrictions were “eleventh hour” changes that failed to follow the regulatory steps required by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The case is Louisiana v. Haaland. The state of Louisiana is the lead plaintiff objecting to BOEM’s extra restrictions and is joined by the American Petroleum Institute and Chevron Corp. A parallel lawsuit consolidated with Louisiana v. Haaland was filed by Shell Offshore Inc.
Environmental groups have gone to the appeals court alongside the Biden administration. The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Turtle Island Restoration Network, are the intervenors in the case.