POLITICS

Emails Show Oil Lobby Mobilized Democratic Governors' Opposition To Biden Energy Order

The effort included helping draft a letter in which Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) pushed back against the administration's pause on new oil and gas leasing.

Fossil fuel trade groups in Louisiana and New Mexico rallied Democratic governors in opposition to President Joe Biden’s executive order pausing new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and in offshore waters, newly released emails show. 

The Biden administration paused new leases on Jan. 27 and launched a major review of the federal oil and gas leasing program. Interior Department officials have said the program currently is “not serving the American public well.” 

The behind-the-scenes lobbying included the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association (LMOGA) introducing top energy officials in Louisiana and New Mexico to each other. LMOGA also provided the Louisiana official with industry talking points about how restricting oil and gas development would hurt the state’s economy, and it helped ghostwrite a letter that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) sent to Biden arguing, among other things, that confronting climate effects depends on continued offshore fossil fuel development.

The communications highlight the growing role regional industry associations play in fighting climate action as pressure mounts on big-name companies and highly visible national groups to put a softer face on regulatory obstruction.

Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) have both spoken out against the Biden administration’s leasing freeze, publicly and in letters to the president. Louisiana joined more than a dozen other states in suing the administration over the executive order, and Lujan Grisham requested New Mexico be exempt from the pause because of its climate change initiatives and greenhouse gas emission reductions. Both states are major oil and gas producers and rely heavily on revenue from fossil fuel development.

“These documents show that the Lujan Grisham and Bel Edwards administrations are valuable assets in the oil industry’s fight against President Biden’s public lands policies,” said Jesse Coleman, a senior investigator with the watchdog group Documented. 

Documented and the Energy and Policy Institute, another watchdog organization, obtained the communications via state public records requests and shared them exclusively with HuffPost. 

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) sent a letter to Biden opposing the pause on leasing. He got help writing the letter from
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) sent a letter to Biden opposing the pause on leasing. He got help writing the letter from Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association.

The day before Biden was expected to sign his order, Lori LeBlanc, vice president of LMOGA, emailed an Edwards staffer to request a meeting to “discuss the federal executive orders around the leasing and drilling permit bans on federal lands and offshore,” falsely characterizing the upcoming order as an all-out ban. Documents show she and other representatives of the oil trade group had a Zoom meeting Jan. 27 with Edwards’ staff, including Thomas Harris, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources, and Chip Kline, executive assistant to the governor for coastal activities and the chair of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Board.

The following day, LMOGA President Tyler Gray copied Harris in an email to Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA). 

“Perhaps there’s a way that NMOGA and LMOGA can work with the governors of New Mexico and Louisiana to approach the Administration in a collaborative way to give consideration for the critical importance of the natural gas and oil industry in our respective states,” Gray wrote. 

Harris promptly responded, thanking Gray for connecting him with the New Mexico trade group. “I appreciate the introduction and look forward to working with NMOGA and Governor Grisham’s staff,” he wrote. “We certainly share a common interest.” 

Things progressed quickly from there. Flynn connected Harris with Harris’s counterpart in New Mexico, Sarah Propst, secretary of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, as well as Adriene Sandoval, director of the department’s Oil Conservation Division. Propst and Harris agreed to meet the following week, on Feb. 3.

“I believe that New Mexico and Louisiana have many shared interest [sic] and that we can work together cooperatively on this and on future issues,” Harris wrote to Propst. The heads of both industry trade groups were copied on emails throughout the exchange. 

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on Aug. 21, 2019, in Norco, Louisiana. 
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on Aug. 21, 2019, in Norco, Louisiana. 

On Feb. 4, LMOGA connected Harris to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which in 2019 joined a lawsuit aimed at allowing the government to greenlight oil and gas development on federal lands without considering the effects on the climate. That same day, Harris spoke at a webinar that LMOGA hosted. During the event, he outlined Edwards’s efforts to push back against the leasing freeze and convince the Biden administration that “cutting domestic production is NOT the path forward,” according to prepared talking points obtained through records requests. That effort, he told the industry group, included “listening to the concerns of CEOs and industry representatives,” as well as reaching out to governors, members of Congress and the Biden administration. 

Instead of making “public, inflammatory comments that would impair his effectiveness in getting a seat at the table and having our legitimate concerns heard,” Edwards “is trying [to] have actual influence on Federal Energy Policy moving forward,” Harris’s prepared remarks read. “Toward that goal, we would certainly welcome any information, data or talking points that your companies believe might help in that cause. Gov. Edwards is planning to speak to Biden’s [Department of Energy] secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm next week and it is not too late to update his talking points.”  

The document goes on to note that during a meeting with LMOGA’s president and other industry leaders the day before, Edwards “instructed” Harris to “work with Tyler [Gray] in drafting a letter for [Edwards’s] signature,” in which the governor would ask the administration to continue issuing permits on existing leases. “We are working with LMOGA staff to craft language for that letter,” Harris’s document says. 

Shauna Sanford, a spokesperson for Edwards, told HuffPost the governor’s team regularly seeks input from stakeholders, including industry leaders and community groups, as it works to understand and assess potential effects of federal policy decisions. 

The Louisiana Dept. of Natural Resources has expertise in many aspects of the exploration and production but does not regulate or directly interact with [outer continental shelf] energy activity,” she said in an email. “Therefore, Secretary Tom Harris and his staff did vet and make use of information provided by LMOGA that appeared to be verifiable and relevant in creating a draft letter for the Governor’s review. LMOGA was one source of several used by the state in drafting letters written on the subject.”

Sanford confirmed that LMOGA assisted with the letter Edwards sent to Biden on Feb. 19, in which the governor swung back against the leasing pause and touted the state’s efforts to address climate change and reduce emissions. 

“I urge you to keep in mind that our ability to address Louisiana’s climate related challenges, improve our structural resilience to catastrophic weather events, combat coastal land loss, and reduce our carbon footprint relies heavily on sustainable and predictable oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico,” Edwards wrote. The pause, he added, “creates uncertainty in our coastal planning process.” 

Of course, business-as-usual fossil fuel production could lock in potentially catastrophic economic and environmental damage not only in Louisiana but also across the globe. 

An abandoned boat sitsamid dead cypresses in coastal waters off Venice, Louisiana, in August 2019. Many oaks and cypress tree
An abandoned boat sitsamid dead cypresses in coastal waters off Venice, Louisiana, in August 2019. Many oaks and cypress trees throughout Louisiana's coastal marshes have died due to a combination of saltwater intrusion and land subsidence. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers find that Louisiana's rising waters and sinking land give it one of the highest rates of sea level rise on the planet.

In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham’s staff communicated “frequently with large operators and the trade associations,” including NMOGA and the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, Caroline Buerkle, one of the governor's top staffers, wrote in a March 12 email response to a county official who reached out about Biden’s executive orders. 

Though it was LMOGA and NMOGA that connected the New Mexico administration to Louisiana officials, the documents HuffPost reviewed do not show industry associations directly shaping New Mexico’s response in the way that they did Louisiana’s. 

“NMOGA and other industry groups have not been involved at all in New Mexico’s response to the Biden administration’s policies and directives,” Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said in an email response. “State officials frequently and productively communicate and collaborate with other states, nonprofits, local government officials as well as industry groups as we not only develop and execute innovative clean-energy policies but ensure federal regulations do not overly or unnecessarily burden New Mexico’s budgetary outlook.”

In addition to a letter Lujan Grisham sent to Biden on March 15, Propst wrote to top Interior Department officials in February informing them that the leasing pause had resulted in “on-the-ground uncertainties that undermine our ability to safeguard New Mexico’s economy and environment.”

Around the same time that NMOGA was communicating with Lujan Grisham’s office about Biden’s order, the industry association was celebrating its success in lobbying for changes to a proposed state rule regulating methane pollution, as The Guardian reported last week. During a Feb. 10 presentation to its board, NMOGA said the state had accepted 72 of its 173 suggested changes to the rule. 

The “process has been fruitful,” the group wrote in its presentation, adding that there had been “significant changes in favor of industry.” 

Alexander Kaufman contributed to this report.