Late last week, the District Court in D.C. delivered a stunning and unexpected victory to climate advocates: It voided offshore oil and gas leases, recently sold by the federal government to energy companies, across 2,700 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico because the U.S. Department of Interior had not accurately calculated what effect the fossil fuels extracted from those wells would have on global greenhouse gas emissions.
An analysis by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) said that it was not possible to quantify whether drilling less oil would result in a reduction of emissions. But District Judge Rudolph Contreras was having none of it. He pointed to research by Peter Erickson, the U.S. climate policy program director of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an international research and policy nonprofit, that shows how such math could be done. Erickson’s report, the judge wrote, “did exactly what BOEM claims was not possible, translating the agency’s own estimate of the reduction in barrels of oil at each price point into greenhouse gas emissions.”
For its part, the Biden administration said it never wanted to proceed with the sale of the leases in the first place. It did so only after losing a court case brought by a group of Republican attorneys general last summer. But once the sale was complete, a handful of environment groups including Friends of the Earth, Healthy Gulf, and the Sierra Club (but not SEI) sued, arguing that the environmental analysis used by BOEM was outdated and inaccurate. The judge vindicated the argument, sending it back to Interior for a do-over.
The ruling has potentially far-reaching implications for any oil lease or, really, any extractive action on federal land. Bloomberg Green asked Erickson to elaborate on his research and whether it could lead to a new legal standard that will require governments to consider CO₂ emissions. The interview has been condensed and edited.
So the court cited your research in a landmark case. That must be very exciting. Can you tell us a little about it?
My training is in geology and math. But as I got into more into fossil fuel markets and emissions, I went back and took a couple economics classes
and started to read that literature. My research in the last few years has been focused on oil and gas markets and their contribution to climate
I think the most relevant thing that I did that the courts cited was something where I was looking a draft of the previous environmental impact statement for the lease program, from 2017 to 2022. I just started to scratch at their modeling assumptions. I looked to the appendix of the report and the main number you need was sitting right there in their own model — it’s how much global oil consumption would change, as a result of this decision of leasing all this new area with all this new oil in it. And all you have to do to turn that number into carbon is multiply it by two other numbers that the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. EPA have already — and then it is out there for you to take.
Does this create a legal “climate test” standard?
That’s the question I’m asking myself, too. The climate test here is simply that the Interior didn’t do the analysis. That’s not a very strong climate test. A better test would be, you know, you have to do the analysis and if it shows a climate impact, something has to happen.
I think a stronger form of that climate test would be basically what [former President] Obama laid out in a speech at Georgetown University about the Keystone pipeline where he says, “We will only approve this pipeline if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of climate pollution.”
You’re saying even with this ruling, as long as DOI does the analysis, even if it shows carbon impact, they could still go ahead and do the leases?
Yes, that’s right. But baby steps.
If a federal agency — or anybody subject to National Environmental Policy Act — is going to be evaluating in an honest way the climate implications of a major new project, then this ruling has to be seen as a step forward. I would think that every environmental impact statement from DOI now on has to take the step of rigorously calculating downstream emissions.