US gets more time for oil auction in lawsuit over Gulf of Mexico whales

By Nichola Groom and Clark Mindock

(Reuters) -A U.S. appeals court on Monday gave the Biden administration until Nov. 8 to hold an expanded sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, the latest development in a legal fight over federal protection of an endangered species of whale.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request by the U.S. Interior Department to stay part of an order issued by a federal judge in Louisiana, which had given the government until the end of this month to hold an auction that includes 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) more than it had planned to offer.

The Interior Department had told the appeals court it disagreed with U.S. District Judge James Cain’s ruling, but only asked the court give its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management more time to hold the sale. The U.S. said the short deadline injected “chaos” into an auction that had already started by mail and needed to be changed significantly to comply with the order.

The 5th Circuit did not block the lower court judge’s decision more broadly, which environmental groups had said was necessary to protect the endangered Rice’s whale from oil and gas development.

Cain’s Sept. 22 order had been celebrated by the oil and gas industry, which had sued in August alongside the state of Louisiana over an earlier decision by the Interior Department to scale back the auction.

Representatives for the Interior Department, environmental groups, the Louisiana attorney general’s office and the American Petroleum Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Democratic President Joe Biden originally paused federal drilling auctions shortly after taking office in 2021 as part of his climate change agenda.

The Interior Department finalized plans for a reduced lease sale in August, after last year’s Inflation Reduction Act mandated the auction move forward. The sale made about 67 million acres in the Gulf available for bids.

The changes stemmed from an agreement struck in August between federal agencies and environmental groups that had sued in 2020 alleging the government did not provide adequate safeguards for the whales.

Those groups had claimed the whales can be harmed or killed by oil spills, vessel strikes, noise, marine debris and other impacts of oil and gas exploration and development.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom and Clark Mindock; Editing by Sandra Maler, Alexia Garamfalvi and Richard Chang)

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