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Montana joins suit to undo Biden pause on oil and gas lease sales

by KEVIN McGILL Associated Press
| March 24, 2021 10:00 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Montana is among 13 states that sued the Biden administration Wednesday to end a suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water and to reschedule canceled sales of leases in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska waters and western states.

The Republican-leaning states, led by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, seek a court order ending the moratorium imposed after Democratic President Joe Biden signed executive orders on climate change on Jan. 27.

The suit specifically seeks an order that the government go ahead with a sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico that had been scheduled for March 17 until it was canceled; and a lease sale that had been planned for this year in Alaska's Cook Inlet.

And it calls for other suspended lease sales to go forward. Sales also have been postponed for federal lands in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada and New Mexico.

Biden and multiple federal agencies bypassed comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays can be undertaken, the states claim in the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in the federal court's Western District of Louisiana.

The Department of the Interior declined immediate comment.

The lawsuit notes that coastal states receive significant revenue from onshore and offshore oil and gas activity. Stopping leases, the lawsuit argues, would diminish revenue that pays for Louisiana efforts to restore coastal wetlands, raise energy costs and lead to major job losses in oil producing states.

Although Landry and the lawsuit's supporters said the moratorium has already driven up prices and endangered energy jobs, Biden's suspension doesn't stop companies from drilling on existing leases. But a long-term halt to oil and gas sales would curb future production and could hurt states like Louisiana that are heavily dependent on the industry.

Biden's team has argued that companies still have plenty of undeveloped leases — almost 14 million acres in western states and more than 9 million acres offshore. Companies also have about 7,700 unused drilling permits — enough for years.

Administration officials have declined to say how long the pause on lease sales will last.

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia are the other plaintiff states.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen called the moratorium on new leases a "reckless abuse of presidential power" that threatens rural Montana.

“Like Joe Biden’s attempt to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, his efforts to end responsible energy development on federal land is something he doesn’t have the power to do," Knudsen said. "It is a violation of the law."

Western Energy Alliance, an industry lobbying group based in Colorado, sued over the leasing suspension in federal court in Wyoming on the same day it was announced. The Biden administration had not responded to the complaint as of Wednesday.

The Interior Department is hosting a livestreamed forum on the leasing program Thursday as it considers changes that could affect future sales and how much companies pay for oil and gas they extract. A report outlining initial findings and the next steps in the review is due this summer.

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