A federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management must consider climate impacts of federal fossil fuel leases in Wyoming. Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Dana Drugmand

A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration’s authorization of oil and gas leasing in Wyoming failed to adequately consider climate change, a decision that invalidated drilling leases for more than 300,000 acres of federal land.

The lawsuit, brought by WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center, charged that the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal law that requires federal agencies to account for the environmental impact of their decisions.

“This case concerns the attention the government must give climate change when taking action that may increase its effects,” U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote in Tuesday’s decision. He said that the BLM failed “to provide the information necessary for the public and agency decision makers to understand the degree to which the leasing decisions at issue would contribute to [climate] impacts,” adding that “BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”

The three groups had based their lawsuit on the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires accounting for environmental impacts, and challenged the leasing of more than 460,000 acres of public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The judge said this decision addresses only the Wyoming leases.

BLM said in its environmental assessment of the leases that they would not have a “measurable effect” on national or global emissions. Contreras disagreed. “The leasing stage,” he wrote, “is the point of no return with respect to emissions.”

He ruled that BLM must provide documents backing its claim that the leases would not affect emissions. After that documentation is provided, the groups may again challenge the assessment and it will be re-evaluated. Until then, the leases being challenged are invalid.

Contreras urged BLM to take the responsibility to assess the leases’ impact on the environment seriously. “Compliance with NEPA cannot be reduced to a bureaucratic formality, and the Court expects 60 [BLM] not to treat remand as an exercise in filling out the proper paperwork,” he wrote.

While Contreras did not permanently vacate the leases, the plaintiffs still considered his ruling a victory.  

“While the ruling applies to Wyoming, it has implications for public lands across the American West and is a major rebuke to the Trump administration’s anti-environment, anti-climate agenda,” WildEarth Guardians said in a press release. Under the Trump administration, millions of acres of federal land have been leased to the oil and gas industry, including nearly 4 million acres last year alone. According to a Department of Interior study released last fall, fossil fuel emissions from public lands accounted for 25 percent of U.S. climate pollution.  

“Every acre of our public land sold to the oil and gas industry is another blow to the climate, making this ruling a powerful reality check on the Trump administration and a potent tool for reining in climate pollution,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and Energy and Communities Program director for the Western Environmental Law Center.

“To limit greenhouse gas emissions, we have to start keeping our fossil fuels in the ground and putting an end to selling public lands for fracking,” added Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program director. “This decision is a critical step toward making that happen.”

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