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The Biden administration last week began auctioning off a large part of the Gulf of Mexico — roughly the size of Italy — for oil and gas development, selling the drilling rights to 1.6 million acres of a 73-million-acre area in the Gulf.
The auction, which drew bids of approximately $264 million from large oil companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Equinor, violated the spirit of President Biden’s 2020 pledge to voters: “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period!”
Biden’s signature climate change law, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), required him to auction off the Gulf waters — because under the terms of the IRA, the federal government can’t lease federal waters for offshore wind development unless it also offers at least 60 million acres of federal waters for oil and gas leasing.
The Biden administration has in fact been offering millions of acres of federal waters for offshore wind leasing. At least three of the oil companies that bid on the Gulf drilling rights — Shell, BP and Equinor — also own wind leases off the coast of New Jersey and New York.
The Biden administration is fast tracking these kinds of offshore wind projects through the federal regulatory process, despite rising concerns about their ecological impacts, including a recent spike in whale and dolphin deaths that prompted calls for investigation.
Democrats and Republicans in the House last week voted to investigate the impacts of offshore wind on whales and the ocean environment. The investigation was tucked into a bill that called for fast tracking most other energy projects to an even greater extent.
Biden, the energy companies and their allies in big environmental organizations — Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace — are refusing calls to slow down offshore wind development to investigate whale and dolphin deaths and the broader ecological impacts.
The administration and its allies claim that fast tracking offshore wind is necessary to eliminate dependence on oil and gas. Yet the U.S. government’s auction of Gulf oil-and-gas drilling rights contradicts this claim.
So does Biden’s mid-March approval of ConocoPhillips’s massive Willow Project in Alaska, which will produce about 600 million barrels of oil over its lifetime.
These major fossil-fuel projects make it likely Biden will not meet the emissions goals he set, especially as U.S. oil production and exports reach all-time highs and Big Oil companies enjoy record profits off the back of their emissions pledges.
As a result, the environment, particularly the offshore ocean environment, is now being threatened by two different forms of industrial energy owned by the same big corporations — offshore oil and wind — with no concomitant reduction in carbon emissions.
The cumulative ecological impacts across large swathes of the ocean will include the noise from sonar mapping and offshore survey work, which is known to disturb marine mammals, increased vessel traffic, noise and sediment from construction and drilling, increased pollution and risk of accidents and other disturbances to the marine environment.
IRA contains built-in contradictions
When the Senate passed the IRA in August 2022, prominent environmentalist Al Gore called it “transformative climate legislation.”
Most green organizations and progressive politicians echoed Gore’s enthusiasm.
Former President Barack Obama called it “the most consequential piece of climate legislation in American history.” NRDC called the law “the strongest U.S. climate action ever.”
However, tying renewables to fossil fuels negated the stated purpose of the law: to reduce carbon emissions by ending dependence on oil.
Yet virtually every major environmental organization, despite expressing dismay about the oil-leasing provisions added by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), urged swift passage of the bill.
Leading U.S. climate activist Bill McKibben complained the law was “deeply compromised,” but nevertheless called it a “great victory” for the climate movement.
IRA supporters noted that although the law required the government to “offer” leases of federal land and waters to oil drillers, the law did not require companies to bid on them. The law states that a bid will result in the issuance of a lease only if the bid is “acceptable.”
Some environmentalists said they were hopeful the IRA would drive down the cost of renewables, making it unattractive for oil companies to take on new oil and gas leases.
But last week’s Gulf auction dashed those hopes. In fact, the IRA made offshore oil leasing more attractive.
Six months before the law passed, a U.S. federal judge struck down the government’s sale of major offshore oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico to ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, ruling the Biden administration had failed to properly consider the effects on the climate.
The IRA eliminated that obstacle, making it more likely, not less, that oil companies will continue purchasing offshore drilling leases and developing them.
Renewable energy can only help the planet if it replaces fossil fuels. The IRA turned that logic on its head by tying renewables to expanded oil-and-gas development.
IRA good at one thing: ‘making billionaires richer’
The IRA exemplifies a failing approach to environmental policy that has been largely captured by corporate interests.
Under the IRA, big corporations that control both the “clean” and “dirty” side of the industry are gobbling up federal leases and having their projects “fast tracked” through the regulatory process — with minimal environmental review, as they gorge on public funds.
The IRA made available $400 billion for “clean” energy development and lucrative corporate boondoggles like unproven “carbon capture” technologies, with hundreds of billions more in tax credits.
According to an analysis by Goldman Sachs, the IRA will outlay a total of $1.2 trillion, which is projected to generate another $3 trillion in private investment in climate-related ventures.
Goldman Sachs said a total of $30 trillion of investment will be made in the “green” energy transition by 2040, which NRDC touts as “the economic play of our lifetime.”
But there is as yet no real-world evidence that this multi-trillion-dollar “economic play” is displacing fossil fuels or reducing carbon emissions.
The main thing the IRA is proven to do at this point is shovel money into the pockets of corporations. According to Forbes, “The Inflation Reduction Act Is Very Good at One Thing: Making Billionaires Richer.”
The theory behind the IRA is that this corporate largesse will eventually reduce the economy’s reliance on fossil fuels.
However, there is a difference between theory and reality — and that difference can be seen most clearly in the oceans, not only off the coast of the U.S., but around the world.
The global oil giant Equinor, which owns wind projects off New Jersey-New York and just bid on oil-and-gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, is trying to get approval from the U.K. government to develop the Rosebank oil field in the North Sea.
If allowed to move forward, the Rosebank project would produce 500 million barrels of oil and blow through the U.K.’s carbon budget.
ConocoPhillips also is developing offshore oil and wind energy around the world, including wind projects off the coasts of China and Norway designed to power offshore oil fields.
ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project will produce about 240 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, making it virtually impossible to reach the President’s emissions targets and undermining the logic of the IRA.
What can environmentalists who genuinely want to protect the planet do?
Environmentalists who genuinely want to protect the natural world are looking beyond the deeply flawed approach represented by the IRA to embrace a much broader understanding of sustainability and ecology having nothing to do with corporate profits or lucrative industrial schemes.
In his article, “How the Environmental Movement Can Find Its Soul Again,” environmental writer Charles Eisenstein asserted that the “core” of the global ecological crisis is “ecocide — the killing of ecosystems, the killing of life.”
To stop this ecocide, he wrote, “We must absolutely protect any remaining intact ecosystems from development, whether it is for oil & gas, minerals, lumber, ranching, suburbs, dam reservoirs, industrial-scale fishing, or biofuels.”
This means protecting intact ocean ecosystems from large-scale offshore industrial development of any kind.
It means protecting whales and dolphins and other marine species — not looking the other way as multinational offshore energy companies destroy their habitat.
To begin to reverse the ecological damage already done, requires “regeneration: the restoring of life to places where it has been depleted,” Eisenstein wrote, through regenerative farming, marine reserves and species reintroduction, and “to revitalize the organs of the Earth and bring them back online to stabilize the climate.”
Eisenstein’s piece is one place, among others, to look for ways to re-frame the ecological challenges of the 21st Century, to move past the flawed thinking of an environmental movement that has gotten badly off track.
The IRA — a law that was supposed to protect the planet but instead put ecological destruction on a fast track — reveals in stark terms the failings of that movement, now largely aligned with corporate interests seeking to profit from a crisis.