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Trump administration must consider climate change before leasing land in Wyoming, court orders
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Trump administration must consider climate change before leasing land in Wyoming, court orders

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Adobe Town

The Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area stretches out in a series of cliffs, pinnacles and valleys. A federal court decided the BLM failed to adequately consider how leasing over one million acres of public land to oil and gas companies throughout the West could affect the climate.

In a move environmental groups considered a win, a federal court declared the Bureau of Land Management did not adequately consider how leasing over one million acres of public land to oil and gas companies throughout the West could affect the climate.

A vast majority of the challenged leases fall within Wyoming.

According to U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras, federal regulators fell short of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act when it leased public land in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Montana between September 2016 and March 2019.

The court decision remanded, or sent back, the leases to the BLM for additional review. The court ruled the BLM neglected to comprehensively forecast the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with leasing the 1.7 million acres for drilling. However, the court chose not to vacate, or invalidate, the leases, as the environmental groups originally demanded.

WildEarth Guardians joined Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Western Environmental Law Center in January to file the lawsuit.

“This is a powerful victory for the climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program for WildEarth Guardians. “Finally, the Trump administration is admitting it can’t legally sell public lands to the oil and gas industry and ignore the consequences for our climate and future.”

In a Sept. 11 motion, attorneys for the BLM actually agreed to voluntarily address the deficiencies of its review, but asked the court to not overturn the lease decisions.

A BLM spokesman said the agency was “pleased with the Court’s granting our request to conduct further NEPA analysis of our lawful leasing decisions.”

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The court’s decision builds on the precedent set by another lawsuit filed in 2016 by the same environmental groups.

That suit targeted several other leases associated with about 450,000 acres in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. In that case, the judge ordered the BLM to reassess the greenhouse gas emissions potentially associated with leasing 303,000 acres of public land in Wyoming for oil and gas development.

Tripp Parks, vice president of government affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, explained the significance of the latest court decision in a written comment.

“With this order, BLM now has the opportunity to update older leasing decisions, several of which took place under the Obama Administration, so they match what the agency has been doing for the past two years,” Parks stated. “Judge Contreras rightly denied the environmental plaintiffs’ request to vacate the leases in the interim, as he has repeatedly declined to do in the past. Going forward, we are confident that BLM is doing the proper analysis of the environmental impacts of lease sales and they will withstand plaintiffs’ unending requests to end BLM leasing.”

Western Energy Alliance represents hundreds of oil and gas companies across the West.

In Wyoming, over half of oil is drilled on public land managed by the federal government, along with 92% of natural gas. Operators in Wyoming produce more oil and gas on federal land than almost any other state in the country, contributing 38% of the natural gas produced on federal land nationwide, along with 16% of oil production.

Steve Degenfelder, land manager at Kirkwood Oil and Gas, said the independent firm was hit by the court decisions. The Casper-based company will hold out to see if the federal regulators’ supplemental environmental reviews will impose additional terms on the leases.

“We will have to wait,” he told the Star-Tribune.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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