Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed over failure of Interior agencies to respond to request for records
GREAT FALLS, MONTANA—Climate and conservation groups sued the U.S. Interior Department late last Friday for failing to release public records, including documents behind the development of a federal oil and gas leasing report, related to President Biden’s 2021 executive order to address climate change.
“President Biden’s executive order directed Interior to complete ‘a comprehensive review and reconsideration’ of the federal oil and gas leasing program in light of its significant contributions to the climate crisis,” said Barbara Chillcott, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Interior’s report merely discusses royalty rates, minimum bids and bonding rates. The people deserve to know why their president, who campaigned on strong climate action, is failing so ‘comprehensively’ to fulfill these promises. Further, we deserve to know if the president is using our climate future as a political bargaining chip.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Montana by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. It seeks drafts of the November 2021 report, including the version transmitted to the White House, and all internal communications about the report’s development.
In December the groups filed a request for records with the Interior Department under the Freedom of Information Act. By law, federal agencies must respond to FOIA requests within 20 working days and promptly provide responsive records. More than three months after the request was filed, three of the four Interior agencies subject to the FOIA request have not responded or provided responsive records. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management partially responded but withheld more than 75% of the responsive documents.
“Biden’s dangerous failure to address climate in his review of federal oil and gas programs is made worse by his agency’s refusal to release public records,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re in a climate emergency and people deserve to know why his promise to end oil and gas leasing turned into greenwashed propaganda. Withholding these records sure makes it seem like there’s something to hide about how this disappointing report came together.”
Days after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order directing Interior to complete “a comprehensive review and reconsideration of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices” and to address “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.” The order directed Interior to take “appropriate action” to account for the climate costs of federally approved fossil fuel production.
In November 2021 the Interior Department issued a report purporting to respond to Biden’s executive order. Contrary to the order, the report did not address “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities” and did not recommend any actions to account for the climate costs of federally approved fossil fuel production. The report, issued the Friday after Thanksgiving, mentions the word “climate” only three times.
“It increasingly seems like this administration is just paying lip service to tackling the climate crisis and prioritizing transparency for federal agencies,” said Anne Hedges with Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s hard to take them seriously when they continue to hide their reasoning for shirking their commitments to addressing the climate crisis.”
Last week Attorney General Merrick Garland issued long-anticipated FOIA guidelines to federal agencies with a reminder that “fair and effective administration of FOIA requires that openness prevail in the face of doubt.”
The lawsuit comes as Interior announced plans to restart federal oil and gas leasing. This would lock in more oil and gas extraction and more climate pollution at a time when scientists worldwide have found that global fossil fuel production must start declining immediately to limit long-term warming.
“It’s intolerable that the Biden administration not only seems to be actively undermining climate action, but fighting transparency in the process,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s time to put an end to this cover up and hold President Biden and his Interior Department accountable to real action to confront the climate crisis.”
Barbara Chillcott, Western Environmental Law Center, (406) 430-3023, [email protected]
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2414, [email protected]
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, [email protected]
Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 443-2520, [email protected]
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