Green groups sue over U.S public land sale

The lawsuit claims the federal government’s auctioning off of public lands for oil and gas is illegal in light of the climate crisis.

With blistering temperatures baking much of the country, environmental groups launched a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a recent oil and gas lease sale on federally-owned land for oil and gas drilling, and they are calling on the Biden administration to end the ongoing auctioning off of public land for more extraction, which is exacerbating the climate crisis.

“We’re out of time, and our climate can’t afford any new fossil fuel extraction,” Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a June 29 statement. “By leasing more public land for fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing it out, President Biden is breaking campaign promises and falling dangerously short of the global leadership required to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

The lawsuit, filed by the Western Environmental Law Center and a coalition of environmental groups, challenges the auction held in June by BLM for roughly 120,000 acres of public land in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

The sale was the first since President Biden froze new lease sales on public lands in his first few days in office, promising to review the entire programme. But legal challenges by the oil industry resulted in a 2021 court decision that effectively forced the government to restart the auctions.

Following up on President Biden’s initial review, the U.S. Department of Interior, the parent agency of BLM, published a November 2021 report that came accompanied with some relatively modest reforms to the public lands programme, including increasing royalty rates on oil and gas production for the first time – raising rates to 18.75 percent, up from 12.5 percent. In an attempt to minimize environmental damage, the agency also shrunk the size of the latest auction, removing 80 percent of the acreage originally planned for sale.

However, those reforms have not satisfied environmental groups, who are suing to stop the selling off of public lands for new drilling.

“The lawsuit is challenging a failure of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement,” Derf Johnson, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a Montana-based non-profit, told Gas Outlook.

He noted that while BLM looked at greenhouse gas emissions of different parts of the lease sale, it did not do so comprehensively. “Instead, BLM looked at the resulting emissions in a piecemeal analysis,” Johnson said.

Moreover, the impacts of drilling go beyond carbon emissions, with extensive environmental damage at the local level. “Oil and gas drilling has numerous impacts on public lands, including degrading water quality and air quality, displacing wildlife and endangered species, and turning once-pristine landscapes into industrialized zones,” Johnson said.

An orderly transition?

The Biden administration attempted to tap the brakes on leasing new lands for drilling in his first year as one part of a broader climate agenda. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a spike in global energy prices, which the oil industry wasted little time in exploiting, calling for more drilling on public lands, a longstanding policy goal. Left unsaid was the fact that the industry is sitting on more than 9,000 unused drilling permits, as well as leases to over 25 million acres of public lands, more than half of which is unused, according to the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado-based NGO.

Despite his initial steps at reform, President Biden has shown little appetite in pursuing an overhaul of the federal leasing programme, backing down under industry pressure, legal battles, and public outrage about high gasoline prices.

But the climate crisis is only growing worse, and according to the lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the government’s public lands policies are contributing to the problem.

BLM is “willfully causing” unnecessary and undue degradation to public lands, Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, told Gas Outlook in an email. The term “unnecessary and undue degradation” is a specific phrase written in federal law. Because the fossil fuel industry is one of the main drivers of the climate change, and the climate crisis itself is causing irreparable damage to public lands, the federal government’s ongoing leasing programme is illegal, the lawsuit alleges.

“Our aspiration is that a decisive win would lead to the orderly wind-down of fossil fuel production on federal land. It is clear from the science that is what has to happen if we have a hope of avoiding even more catastrophic impacts than we’re already experiencing,” she said. “It is past time for existing provisions of law to be enforced commensurate with this scientific reality.”

Johnson agreed, saying that BLM’s faulty analysis should have accounted for the damage to public lands from more and more drilling. “BLM needs to take a step back and fully evaluate the climate impacts associated with oil and gas leasing,” he said. “A true analysis would lead the agency to conclude that it needs to plan for an orderly transition, and to phase out oil and gas drilling on public lands.”

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