CASPER — A federal judge on Tuesday rebuked the Bureau of Land Management over oil and gas leases sold in Wyoming during the Obama administration for failing to take a hard look at how leasing the land for potential oil and gas development would affect climate change.
The decision, which requires the BLM to re-evaluate that impact but does not rescind the leases, comes at a controversial time for leasing in the West.
The Trump administration’s energy dominance push has contributed to an increase in leasing in states like Wyoming, emboldening the oil and gas industry and driving conservation and wildlife groups to protest and litigate.
Washington, D.C., district court judge Rudolph Contreras ruled Tuesday that the Bureau of Land Management failed to address climate change impacts when it leased about 300,000 acres of Wyoming land to oil and gas companies in 2015 and 2016 for potential drilling. The decision will block further development on those lands until the BLM has evaluated the potential climate change impact of leasing those parcels, about 500 square miles of Wyoming land.
The BLM is obligated to consider environmental impacts, including climate change, when it analyzes potential development on federal land or with federal minerals.
But though the agency talked about climate change in its analysis of these leases in Wyoming on a “conceptual level,” it failed “to conduct a more piercing consideration of the consequences of oil and gas drilling before it authorized the Wyoming Lease Sales,” the judge wrote.
The decision introduces a potentially important precedent for measuring the cumulative impact on climate change of hundreds of oil and gas leases sold in Wyoming every year, groups note.
“That’s what climate change is all about, you have to look at the bigger picture, not in isolation,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wildearth Guardians, the group that sued the Interior Department over the Wyoming leases.
Wyoming BLM directed a request for comment to the Interior Department.
A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit was initially brought against the Obama administration. Oil and gas development in the U.S. experienced a surge of activity in the second half of the previous administration, driving the U.S. to record production and talk of energy independence.
The energy boom led groups like Wildearth Guardian to push back on industry activity on public land. The lawsuit over the Wyoming leases was inspired by a similar suit in regard to coal leasing in Wyoming and climate change.
“We saw what was happening with coal and the Obama administration,” Nichols said. “We were scratching our head going ‘wait a minute, what about oil and gas.”
When first filed in 2017, the lawsuit concerning the Wyoming oil and gas leases was an attempt to sway the Obama administration and the then-expected Hillary Clinton administration to “step up and do the right thing,” said Nichols.
Instead the lawsuit was inherited by a very different administration, one that has made energy development a priority on federal lands and been fairly consistent in its denial of man-made climate change.
Nichols said he sees the lawsuit now as a defensive one.
“We are trying to remain optimistic, but they’ve made no bones about the fact that they don’t believe in climate change,” Nichols said of the Trump administration. “We view this ruling … as important leverage to at least slow the machine down.”
Oil and gas leasing has surged in Wyoming in recent years, a jump that diverted revenue into the state’s very dry coffers.
The current increase in leasing activity follows a lull that tracks closely to the Obama years. Both industry request for leases and actual leases sold by the BLM dipped during the previous administration, with one exception in 2011 — when more than 1 million acres were leased in Wyoming, the first time acreage had eclipsed 1 million since 2001, according to BLM records.
That changed just as President Donald Trump took office.
The price of oil had begun to rise in 2017 after a historic dive. The combined factors of a supportive administration and the favorable price of crude preceded what’s become an incredible pace of leasing in Wyoming.
Revenue from leases, on both federal and state lands, rose by 800 percent from 2016 to 2017. The change has also sparked a number of disagreements in Wyoming in regard to development.
A December lease sale in Wyoming was contested over two wildlife concerns, a mule deer migration route and sage grouse habitat. Wyoming collaborated with the BLM for a compromise on leases in and overlapping with the mule deer route. That compromise has fallen short of conservation and hunting groups’ hopes but continued protest failed to make headway.
The sage grouse habitat fight went to court, where the BLM was instructed in December to pull parcels for sale in sage grouse habitat because the Trump administration’s accelerated timeline for leasing broke federal law. Most of that land was offered for lease after the public had been offered a longer comment period at a sale in February.
That sale netted about $44 million for the state of Wyoming.
Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said his group, an intervenor in the lawsuit, was still reviewing the judge’s decision before considering next steps.
“If the ultimate impact (of the judge’s decision) is federal leasing in Wyoming is dramatically impacted, that’s a problem,” he said. “Obviously it’s a problem for us; it’s a dramatic problem for Wyoming’s economy.”
Though the implications of the judge’s decision on Wyoming leasing activity are unclear, the ruling is another tool that groups like Wildearth Guardians hope to use in slowing the energy push on Wyoming lands. The decision did not include similar protests over leases in recent years in Colorado and other states.
Nichols said he hopes the judge’s decision instigates a broad review of leasing for oil and gas, noting his belief that the decision has potential ramifications for every lease that’s been sold and each one on the auction block now.
“We hope the agency sees the light here, which is that they are vulnerable,” Nichols said. “If they were smart they would put the brakes on.”
The Wyoming Bureau of Land Management closed its first quarter lease sale Wednesday, which netted about $12 million for 96,000 acres sold.
By Heather Richards
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange