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Trump administration must weigh climate change when leasing land to oil and gas, court rules

Trump administration must weigh climate change when leasing land to oil and gas, court rules

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Pumpjacks work in an oil field near Lovington, N.M. in 2015. A federal court ruled the Trump administration neglected to take a "hard look" at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with leasing public land to oil and gas companies.

A federal judge admonished the Trump administration yet again in a court opinion on Friday for failing to adequately assess how leasing public land to oil and gas developers could negatively affect the climate.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the Bureau of Land Management neglected to properly weigh the impacts of climate change when conducting its environmental review tied to 304,000 acres of leased land in Wyoming.

In the decision rendered Friday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras called on federal regulators to conduct its environmental analysis again before drilling could be occur.

According to the judge, the BLM’s analysis once again fell short and did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it leased public land in Wyoming to oil and gas developers.

The judge moved to enjoin, or block, drilling applications from being approved on 282 lease parcels of federal land, an area amounting to 303,995 acres in Wyoming.

When did this case begin?

This isn’t the first time the court has struck down the Trump administration’s environmental analysis related to leasing public land for oil and gas development.

In 2016, two non-profit organizations, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, filed the lawsuit against the BLM. In March 2019, the court sided with the plaintiffs and concluded the BLM had not fully considered the cumulative impacts of climate change before leasing the land to energy companies. The judge ordered the agency to conduct additional analysis before development could move forward.

After the BLM submitted the supplemental environmental reviews, the agency was met with yet another challenge from the same pair of nonprofit groups. WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility called the BLM’s new analysis “error-riddled,” “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

The federal court agreed on Friday, calling the BLM’s additional analysis “a sloppy and rushed process.”

The ruling outlined how the BLM neglected to take a “hard look” at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with leasing and blocked the agency from being able to approve applications to drill, according to court documents. It ordered the BLM to go back to the drawing board once again to outline how oil and gas activities could impact the climate.

“Fracking and oil and gas extraction on public lands is a major health, climate, and environmental crisis,” said Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “This latest reproach of the Trump administration is an opportunity for President-elect Biden to put U.S. public lands to work for people and the planet.”

Meanwhile, the BLM defended its analysis.

“Our commonsense decisions were based on the best available science,” a spokesman for the BLM wrote in a statement. “The Department will continue to implement President Trump’s agenda to create more American jobs, protect the safety of American workers, support domestic energy production and conserve our environment.”

What’s next for operators?

In the meantime, oil and gas companies who placed successful bids on the challenged leases are in a holding pattern. Lease holders cannot move ahead with applying for drilling permits until the litigation sorts itself out.

For instance, Casper-based Kirkwood Oil and Gas LLC has 24 leases amounting to 19,737 acres implicated in Friday’s decision. Back when the complaint was filed, the company requested — and was granted — suspensions on these leases, according to land manager Steve Degenfelder.

Western Energy Alliance, a group representing oil and gas companies, intervened in the case. President Kathleen Sgamma called the court’s most recent decision disappointing but not surprising.

“BLM addressed all the concerns from his original ruling, and now he finds others,” she told the Star-Tribune in a written comment.

“Meanwhile, the further delay of development on the leases at issue sows more uncertainty in Wyoming and across the West,” she added. “At a time when Wyoming’s economy is already struggling, delaying development for endless analysis further erodes tax revenue to fund vital services across the state as well as job recovery.”

Despite the legal hiccups, the BLM plans to continue forging ahead on holding lease sales. It plans to open up 383 parcels covering about 483,017 acres for oil and gas leasing in its first quarterly sale of 2021. The sale will take place the week of March 15.

Environmental groups filed a protest on Monday challenging the BLM’s decision to open up these parcels to development.

The public protest period for this environmental assessment related to the March sale will be open until Dec. 13.

Hasn’t this happened before?

Friday’s court ruling comes on the heels of a similar decision related to oil and gas leasing on federal land rendered last month by the same judge.

On Oct. 23, the federal court found other lease sales taking place in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Montana between September 2016 and March 2019 had also not been properly reviewed. The ruling remanded, or sent back, the leases to the BLM for additional review. However, the court chose not to vacate, or invalidate, the leases, as the environmental groups originally demanded. 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.

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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