Federal plans call for expanded drilling across federal lands in Colorado, now being challenged by a climate lawsuitFederal leasing plans across Colorado did not take into account their impact on climate change, a new lawsuit says. Photo credit: George Frey/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Three environmental conservation groups sued the Trump administration on Tuesday for failing to account for the climate impacts of planned oil and gas extraction on public lands in western Colorado. 

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado by the Center for Biological Diversity, Wilderness Workshop, and the Wilderness Society. Defendants include the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt and other senior BLM officials. 

The environmental groups are challenging BLM’s 2015 resource management plan, which sets aside nearly one million acres of federally administered land near Grand Junction, Colo., for oil and gas development. The groups say the plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it fails to analyze fracking’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and account for its climate and environmental impacts. Fossil fuel production on federal lands accounts for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

BLM’s alleged failure to consider these impacts and its approval of new leases in the area triggered a lawsuit filed by environmental groups last year. That lawsuit challenges oil and gas leasing on over 45,000 acres, while the suit filed Tuesday targets BLM’s 20-year plan that would open up 935,600 acres for oil and gas leasing and predicts development of nearly 4,000 new fracking wells. 

The first lawsuit has been paused while the two sides discuss settlement options.

“The Grand Junction plan says the BLM will approve thousands of new oil and gas wells on our public lands in coming years,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But rather than considering and disclosing the effects of all that fossil fuel development on climate, the agency said it’d do that later. Then, when BLM started selling leases to facilitate new drilling, the agency said the plan already considered all the impacts. This lawsuit, coupled with the leasing challenge we filed in 2018, exposes the shell game BLM has been playing.”

BLM, which recently announced it would be relocating its headquarters to Grand Junction, said it would not comment on pending litigation. 

Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Diana Dascalu-Joffe told Climate Liability News the new lawsuit challenging the planning document is key to settling the first lawsuit because that influences its leasing decisions. 

“The planning stage is when the agency has the best opportunity to analyze climate impacts from a broad perspective,” she said. “That’s when they authorize what’s going to be leased.” 

Courts have already ruled against the agency in similar lawsuits. In March, a U.S. District Court judge blocked BLM’s approval of oil and gas leasing on more than 300,000 acres in Wyoming because the agency failed to consider the climate impacts of the new leases. And last month, a federal district court decided that BLM’s 2015 resource management plan for the Colorado River Valley, an area adjacent to the Grand Junction area, did not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions. Both of these rulings found that the agency’s failure to account for climate impacts violates NEPA, a bedrock environmental statute requiring federal agencies to analyze environmental impacts of major actions. 

“We can look back on decisions that have been favorable on this particular issue, which is that the agency must do the requisite greenhouse gas emissions analysis before they make decisions about federal fossil fuel leasing, or planning. At every stage, they need to be doing the requisite analysis, and if they fail to do so they’re in violation of the law,” said Dascalu-Joffe. 

 “BLM has failed to account for the climate impacts of oil and gas leasing for far too long,” said Julia Guarino, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “And despite several court decisions making it clear that this failure is illegal, the BLM continues to allow oil and gas leasing to go forward without considering the climate impacts.”

“This is just another example where the agency has basically just failed to do their job,” added Dascalu-Joffe “We are going to continue to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they comply with the law.” 

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