The ruling temporarily halts drilling on 300,000 acres of federal land leases in Wyoming

From Fortune

A federal judge has ruled the Interior Department failed to consider the environmental impact of oil and gas leasing in the Western U.S. states, which is a violation of U.S. law, the Washington Post reports.

The Tuesday decision by Judge Rudolph Contreras for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is the first to challenge the Trump administration’s plans to boost fossil fuel production.

In his decision, Contreras said the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management “did not sufficiently consider climate change” when it decided to auction off federal land in Wyoming that would be used for gas and oil drilling.

The ruling will at least temporarily protect 300,000 acres of Wyoming land from drilling. Fortune contacted Interior officials for comment on whether a Trump administration appeal is pending.

The case was brought by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

President Donald Trump has made significant changes to environmental protections in the last two years. The Environmental Protection Agency has undone Obama administration regulations on coal and automobile emissions, according to National Geographic.

The president in 2017 also approved construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Recent reports suggest the president plans to open federal waters to oil and gas drilling, including off the East Coast in the Atlantic Ocean, Reuters reports.

When Fortune asked about the Trump administration’s oil-drilling plans, Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management at Interior, said in a statement: “President Trump has given clear direction that he wants to safely secure additional domestic energy from public lands on behalf of the American people… that will result in more jobs and economic growth, make America safer, benefit state and local conservation programs, and improve infrastructure.”

From the Washington Post

Federal Judge Demands Trump Administration Reveal How its Drilling Plans will Fuel Climate Change

A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of Washington marks the first time the Trump administration has been held to account for the climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda, and it could have sweeping implications for the president’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country. Contreras concluded that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management “did not sufficiently consider climate change” when making decisions to auction off federal land in Wyoming to oil and gas drilling in 2015 and 2016. The judge temporarily blocked drilling on roughly 300,000 acres of land in the state.

The initial ruling in the case brought by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, has implications for oil and gas drilling on federal land throughout the West. In the decision, Contreras—a Barack Obama appointee — faulted the agency’s environmental assessments as inadequate because it did not detail how individual drilling projects contributed to the nation’s overall carbon output. Since greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, the judge wrote, these analyses did not provide policymakers and the public with a sufficient understanding of drilling’s impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling,” he wrote.

Contreras did not void the leases outright, but instead ordered BLM to redo its analysis of hundreds of projects in Wyoming.

From deadly wildfires to debilitating hurricanes: White House releases major climate report

The Trump administration released on Nov. 23 a long-awaited report outlining that climate change impacts “are intensifying across the country.” (Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma, whose group is one of the defendants in the case, said in a phone interview that she was confident the ruling could be overturned on appeal. She noted that the Obama and Trump administrations had conducted similar climate analyses in their leasing documents, and that it was impossible to predict the cumulative impact of these auctions because just under half of all federal land leased for drilling is eventually developed.

“This judge has ignored decades of legal precedent in this ruling,” she said. “The judge is basically asking BLM to take a wild guess on how many wells will be developed on leases, prematurely.”

Jeremy Nichols, who directs WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, said in a phone interview that the decision would force the administration to reveal how its policies are helping to fuel climate change. He said his group would now take steps to try to block federal oil and gas lease auctions scheduled for next week, which encompass 560,000 acres of western land.

“It calls into question the legality of the Trump administration’s entire oil and gas program, Nichols said. “This forces them to pull their head out of the sand and look at the bigger picture.”

Federal oil, gas and coal leasing — both on land and offshore — accounts for a quarter of America’s total carbon output, according to a report issued last year by Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey. Oil and gas drilling accounts for about 40 percent, or 500 million metric tons, of that total.

Even if Contreras’s decision stands, however, it may not block the administration’s energy agenda altogether. While BLM would be required to disclose the overall climate impact of its leasing decisions, it could potentially still go ahead and open those lands up for development.

While the Interior Department began to take into account the climate impacts of federal oil, gas and coal leasing toward the end of President Obama’s second term, Trump administration officials jettisoned those plans right after President Trump took office. Interior lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing in 2017, and is working to overhaul a 2016 guidance that requires federal agencies to assess the global climate impact of their policies.

Trump and several of his top deputies have dismissed recent federal findings that the United States and other countries must curb their carbon output in the next decade or face potentially disastrous consequences from climate change. In a draft analysis last year of its plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that if the U.S. continued on its current path the globe could warm by 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and suggested that this trend illustrated why curbing carbon emissions would make little difference to the planet.

Interior officials did not immediately comment Wednesday.

A chilling effect on oil and gas in the U.S. West

Even though the new ruling eventually could be overturned, proponents of oil and gas drilling cautioned that it could still have a chilling effect on development out West.

“Any time there’s a ruling that sows more uncertainty on federal land, that has a ripple effect not just on these leases in question, but throughout the entire federal onshore system,” Sgamma said.

And Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, “This bad decision will hurt workers in Wyoming, reduce revenue for the state and slow America’s energy production.”

From the Casper Star-Tribune

Court Rebukes Feds for Wyoming Oil and Gas Leases that Ignored Climate Change Impacts

A federal judge on Tuesday rebuked the Bureau of Land Management over oil and gas leases sold in Wyoming during the Obama Administration for failing to take a hard look at how leasing the land for potential oil and gas development would affect climate change.

The decision, which requires the BLM to re-evaluate that impact but does not rescind the leases, comes at a controversial time for leasing in the West.

The Trump administration’s energy dominance push has contributed to an increase in leasing in states like Wyoming, emboldening the oil and gas industry and driving conservation and wildlife groups to protest and litigate.

A Washington D.C. district court judge ruled Tuesday that the Bureau of Land Management failed to address climate change impacts when it leased about 300,000 acres of Wyoming land to oil and gas

The BLM is obligated to consider environmental impacts, including climate change, when it analyzes potential development on federal land or with federal minerals.

But though the agency talked about climate change in its analysis of these leases in Wyoming on a “conceptual level,” it failed “to conduct a more piercing consideration of the consequences of oil and gas drilling before it authorized the Wyoming Lease Sales,” the judge wrote.

The decision introduces a potentially important precedent on measuring the cumulative impact of oil and gas leasing on climate change, groups note.

“That’s what climate change is all about, you have to look at the bigger picture, not in isolation,” said Jeremey Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wildearth Guardians, the group that sued the Interior Department over the Wyoming leases.

Wyoming BLM directed a request for comment to the Interior Department. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

Lawsuit origins 

The lawsuit was initially brought against the Obama administration. Oil and gas development in the U.S. experienced a surge of activity in the second half of the previous administration, driving the U.S. to record production and talk of energy independence.

The energy boom led groups like Wildearth Guardian to push back on industry activity on public land. The lawsuit over the Wyoming leases was inspired by a similar suit in regard to coal leasing in Wyoming and climate change.

“We saw what was happening with coal and the Obama administration,” Nichols said. “We were scratching our head going ‘wait a minute, what about oil and gas.”

When first filed in 2017, the lawsuit concerning the Wyoming oil and gas leases was an attempt to sway the Obama administration and the then-expected Hillary Clinton administration to “step up and do the right thing,” said Nichols.

Instead the lawsuit was inherited by a very different administration, one that has made energy development a priority on federal lands and been fairly consistent in its denial of man-made climate change.

Nichols said he sees the lawsuit now as a defensive one.

“We are trying to remain optimistic, but they’ve made no bones about the fact that they don’t believe in climate change,” Nichols said of the Trump administration. “We view this ruling … as important leverage to at least slow the machine down.”

Leasing surge

Oil and gas leasing has surged in Wyoming in recent years, a jump that diverted revenue into the state’s very dry coffers.

The current increase in leasing activity follows a lull that tracks closely to the Obama years. Both industry request for leases and actual leases sold by the BLM dipped during the previous administration, with one exception in 2011 — when more than 1 million acres were leased in Wyoming, the first time acreage had eclipsed 1 million since 2001, according to BLM records.

That changed just as President Donald Trump took office.

The price of oil had begun to rise in 2017 after a historic dive. The combined factors of a supportive administration and the favorable price of crude preceded what’s become an incredible pace of leasing in Wyoming.

Revenue from leases, on both federal and state lands, rose by 800 percent from 2016 to 2017.

The change has also sparked a number of disagreements in Wyoming in regard to development.

A December lease sale in Wyoming was contested over two wildlife concerns, a mule deer migration route and sage grouse habitat. Wyoming collaborated with the BLM for a compromise on leases in and overlapping with the mule deer route. That compromise has fallen short of conservation and hunting groups’ hopes but continued protest failed to make headway.

The sage grouse habitat fight went to court, where the BLM was instructed in December to pull parcels for sale in sage grouse habitat because the Trump administration’s accelerated timeline for leasing broke federal law. Most of that land was offered for lease after the public had been offered a longer comment period at a sale in February.

That sale netted about $44 million for the state of Wyoming.

Industry response

Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said his group, an intervenor in the lawsuit, was still reviewing the judge’s decision before considering next steps.

“If the ultimate impact (of the judge’s decision) is federal leasing in Wyoming is dramatically impacted, that’s a problem,” he said. “Obviously it’s a problem for us; it’s a dramatic problem for Wyoming’s economy.”

Though the implications of the judge’s decision on Wyoming leasing activity is unclear, the ruling is another tool that groups like Wildearth Guardians hope to use in slowing the energy push on Wyoming lands. The decision did not include similar protests over leases in recent years in Colorado and other states.

Nichols said he hopes the judge’s decision instigates a broad review of leasing for oil and gas, noting his belief that the decision has potential ramifications for every lease that’s been sold and each one on the auction block now.

“We hope the agency sees the light here, which is that they are vulnerable,” Nichols said. “If they were smart they would put the brakes on.”

The Wyoming Bureau of Land Management closed its first quarter lease sale Wednesday, which netted about $12 million for 96,000 acres sold.

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