Federal judge set to rule on effort to lift Biden’s moratorium on new oil leases in Lafayette

Andrew Capps
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry speaks during a press conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Lafayette Thursday, June 10, 2021, ahead of a hearing over President Joe Biden's pause on new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico that Landry's office is leading a group of 12 other states in suing to undo.

After hearing arguments in case where a group of states is suing President Joe Biden’s administration over its moratorium on new oil leases in Lafayette Thursday, a federal judge is set to rule on a preliminary effort to lift the ban. 

Judge Terry Doughty, of the federal Western District Court of Louisiana, declined to rule from the bench Thursday on a request from 13 conservative states, led by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, to end the Biden administration’s moratorium, saying instead he would issue a ruling “as soon as I can.” 

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia joined Louisiana in the suit.

From the president:President Joe Biden issues 60-day ban on new oil and gas drilling permits in Gulf of Mexico

Biden’s administration has postponed nearly all previously planned sales for the right to lease federally owned land and extract the underlying oil following a January executive order issuing a pause on those sales. Attorneys for his administration argued Thursday the pause was actually the result of a court ruling requiring a revision of environmental review standards. 

The sales and subsequent royalties on oil production generate millions of dollars in revenue for local, state and federal governments.

Doughty’s anticipated ruling could be a step toward requiring Biden’s Department of the Interior to resume sales of new oil leases, both offshore and on land, should he side with the group of states that launched the lawsuit against the Biden administration in March.

Follow this issue:Louisiana and a dozen other states sue to undo Biden oil restrictions

During Thursday’s hearing on a preliminary injunction,  Doughty seemed sympathetic to the arguments brought by attorney Joseph Scott St. John, who represented the group of states suing to lift the moratorium. 

“I’ve got to admit it looks a little funny,” Doughty told attorneys representing the Biden administration after they argued that Biden’s January executive order was not an administrative action that prompted the pause of new lease sales, which St. John argued amounted to an infringement on Congress’s control over federal lands. 

Instead, attorneys Michael Sawyer and Thomas Ports Jr., who represented the Biden administration, argued that new sales had been postponed because of a November court ruling that has prompted the administration to reconstruct the requirements for environmental analyses prior to issuing any new leases. 

From the governor:Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asks President Biden to lift drilling ban by summer

Otherwise, the Department of the Interior could face “substantial litigation risk” by going ahead with new lease sales that didn’t meet the environmental analysis standards that are currently under revision because of that November court decision, the administration’s attorneys argued.

“Compelling these lease sales would do more harm than good,” Sawyer told Doughty Thursday, saying the current pause on new leases would have “no significant change in production or revenue” in the near term since current oil leases are unaffected. 

But St. John argued that the current moratorium on new lease sales amounted to a significant disruption in the oil industry, saying the sales are not just “a run to the store. These are very large companies spending millions of dollars.”

Explainer: Why is Biden halting federal oil and gas sales?

Though he did not issue a ruling on the injunction Thursday, Doughty showed disbelief at the Biden administration’s attorney’s defense.

“It just seems a little suspicious for sure,” he said after Sawyer argued the lack of new lease sales was not the product of a wholesale pause on the operations prompted by Biden’s executive order.  

“I didn’t expect y’all to say this is not a pause,” he continued, saying he had seen Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland call it a pause on new lease sales on TV prior to the lawsuit being launched in March.

If Doughty grants the preliminary injunction sought by the group of 13 states to lift the moratorium, he could compel the sales of new oil leases to resume, a move that St. John advocated for Thursday.

Follow Andrew Capps on Twitter or send an email to acapps@theadvertiser.com.