Federal Court Rules Major Wyoming Oil and Gas Lease Sale Illegal for Ignoring Climate Impacts

“This is a huge victory for the protection of our public lands,” said Friends of the Earth.

By Julia Conley Published 3-25-2024 by Common Dreams

Aerial view showing typical drilling activity in the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field of Wyoming. Photo: SkyTruth/flickr/CC

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will have to reevaluate the wildlife and public health impacts of a major 2022 oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming after a federal judge ruled Friday that the agency had overlooked “what is widely regarded as the most pressing environmental threat facing the world today” when it moved forward with leasing 120,000 of federal land.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled in Washington, D.C. that the BLM did not halt the lease sale even after it acknowledged that oil and gas drilling on the federal lands could result in the same negative environmental and social impacts as the addition of hundreds of thousands of cars to U.S. roads each year.

Moving forward with one of the Biden administration’s largest lease sales despite its likely environmental harm, said Cooper, was illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws.

Representing The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth (FOE), environmental legal group Earthjustice sued BLM over its leasing plans’ potential impact on the greater sage grouse, an endangered bird species, and other wildlife, as well as groundwater impacts.

The judge found BLM did not complete a sufficiently detailed review of drilling impacts on the greater sage grouse, and relied too heavily on outdated and overly broad analyses of oil and gas drilling in Wyoming.

While the agency has been attempting to “stop the bleeding” of the greater sage grouse, whose population has declined nearly 40% since 2002, the BLM still refused to postpone leasing in a critical habitat for the bird.

The Biden administration also did not adequately explain its analysis of potential groundwater harms, said the ruling.

Despite some conservation strides by the Biden administration, The Wilderness Society’s Ben Tettlebaum said the court’s decision “affirms that much work remains” to be done. The BLM, he added, “must fully account for the serious impacts of its oil and gas program on groundwater, wildlife, and the climate.”

Tettlebaum said the ruling also proves the agency is required to “factor into its leasing decisions the enormous costs that greenhouse gas emissions stemming from its oil and gas program impose on public land resources and on the communities that depend on them for clean air and water.”

Hallie Templeton, legal director for FOE, added that the federal government “simply cannot ignore climate, wildlife, and water impacts when analyzing the myriad risks of oil and gas leasing, whether in Wyoming or across the country,” as the ruling makes clear.

“We are beyond pleased with this outcome,” said Templeton.

The ruling “should be another wake up call for the Bureau of Land Management to at long last address the damage caused from federal oil and gas development,” said Alexandra Schluntz, senior associate attorney for Earthjustice. “It is time to make fossil fuel leasing on our public lands a thing of the past.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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