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Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases sale postponed over endangered whale protections

An upcoming sale of federal Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases was officially postponed Thursday amid legal fights over protections for an endangered species of whale.

A federal appellate panel last week paused a separate appeals panel’s order that the sale be held next Wednesday. Oil industry advocates had pressed President Joe Biden’s administration to go ahead with the sale anyway. But the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it was postponing the event because of the legal uncertainties heading into a Nov. 13 appeals court hearing.

The lease sale, called for in 2022 climate legislation that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act, was announced earlier this year. The available tracts covered a broad area of Gulf waters off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 27. But BOEM announced in August that it was scaling back the amount of acreage oil companies would be allowed to bid on from 73 million acres to 67 million acres. That followed a proposed legal settlement between the administration and environmentalists in a lawsuit over protections for an endangered whale species.

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Rig and supply vessel

This photo shows a rig and supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico off the cost of Louisiana, April 10, 2011. A sale of federal Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases that had been scheduled for Nov. 8, 2023, was officially postponed by the Biden administration on Nov. 2. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

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Oil companies and the state of Louisiana objected to the reduction, setting off a still-brewing legal battle.

A federal judge in southwest Louisiana ordered the sale to go on at its original scale with the whale protections eliminated. That led to an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In late September, a panel of that court refused to block the federal judge’s order but amended it to push the sale back to Nov. 8, so the administration would have more time to prepare. But last week, a different panel stayed that order and set a hearing on the merits of the case for Nov. 13.

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Oil industry representatives and industry supporters in Congress pressed BOEM to hold the full-sized sale on Nov. 8 despite the lack of a court resolution. Senate energy committee Chairman Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who has clashed with Biden and other fellow Democrats on energy policy, and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming both said the sale should go on.

But the administration made the latest delay official in a Thursday statement.

“Until the court rules, BOEM cannot be certain of which areas or stipulations may be included in the sale notice,” the BOEM statement said.

Reaction against the decision came quickly from the American Petroleum Institute and the National Ocean Industries Association. “Once again, the Administration is standing against domestic oil and gas production,” NOIA’s president, Erik Milito, said in a written statement.

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