Science Policy & Funding News

Judge Blocks Oil and Gas Leases on Public Land, Citing Climate Change

The ruling pointed out a “critical flaw” in fossil fuel leasing.

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In a court ruling Tuesday, 19 March, a federal judge temporarily halted oil and gas leases on 300,000 acres (1,200 square kilometers) of public lands in Wyoming because the sale of the leases “did not sufficiently consider climate change.”

The Obama administration had auctioned off the land in 2015 and 2016 for oil and gas exploration. The court decision pauses these sales and orders the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to redo its environmental assessment.

“This decision is hugely significant,” Noel Healy, a professor of geography at Salem State University in Massachusetts, told Eos. “It could be used to challenge Trump’s plans to further fossil fuel production across the U.S.”

President Donald Trump hopes to increase both onshore and offshore fossil fuel production.

“The Department of [the] Interior and BLM were willfully ignoring the climate consequences of oil and gas development across hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands,” Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians and one of the plaintiffs in the case, told Eos. “We wanted to hold BLM accountable for its decisions to sacrifice public lands for dirty oil and gas.”

Wyoming senator Mike Enzi (R) called the ruling “a shortsighted decision” that would “damage our workforce and economy” and set a “dangerous precedent for the future.”

An Incomplete Assessment

The ruling pointed out a “critical flaw” in fossil fuel leasing, said Healy. BLM is required to evaluate the environmental impacts of the leases under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but the agency failed to account for emissions from future oil and gas extraction and their impact on climate change.

BLM argued that site-specific assessments completed later would take the emissions into account, but the judge ruled that this was inadequate given the “cumulative nature of climate change.” The agency will need to provide estimates of the emissions from drilling and its downstream uses, and then assess their effect on climate change before the sales can go forward.

“Downstream emissions are frequently omitted from the decision-making process, even though NEPA requires this quantification,” Healy noted. “We just need better enforcement of the rule of law.”

Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor of energy engineering at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, supports the ruling. “Every oil and gas project could potentially add significant carbon emissions far into the future,” he added. “It would simply be irresponsible to not consider the future consequences of our actions.”

Winners and Losers

WildEarth Guardian attorney Ruscavage-Barz told Eos that the precedent set by this case has implications for public lands across the West.

“It’s clear that Interior and BLM need to ensure the entire federal oil and gas program is in line with confronting the climate crisis,” Ruscavage-Barz said. She called for a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing and a comprehensive review of federal leasing.

Wyoming governor Mark Gordon (R) criticized the court’s decision in a statement reported by the Washington Post.

“Our country’s efforts to reduce carbon should not center on the livelihoods of those committed workers and industries who seek to provide reliable and affordable energy, especially when we don’t look to the detrimental effects of other expansive industries,” he said. “Bringing our country to its knees is not the way to thwart climate change.”

In Sen. Enzi’s denouncement of the ruling, he suggested, “Instead of trying to manipulate our judicial system to stop energy development, we should be focused on innovative technological solutions to help ensure our energy development is affordable, reliable, and cleaner.”

Calls for More Effective Policy

Ravikumar told Eos that the ruling will be “an important guiding decision for federal agencies.” But he warned against relying on the courts to forward climate mitigation.

“If we had effective federal climate policy or even a long-term climate action plan, we wouldn’t need to debate every single drilling project,” Ravikumar said. “The climate crisis is too important an issue to be left to the whimsy of the judicial system.”

One such policy change could be a bill under consideration in the Colorado state legislature, SB19-181. The bill would further regulate the oil and gas industry and give local governments more authority to consider environmental and climate concerns.

“If passed, it will constitute the biggest shift in how we think of oil and gas conservation and waste since 1950,” law professor Tara Righetti at the University of Wyoming told Eos. “It has the potential to radically change how state agencies regulate oil and gas permitting.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Intern

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2019), Judge blocks oil and gas leases on public land, citing climate change, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO119037. Published on 22 March 2019.
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