Oil and gas leasing delayed in sage grouse habitat

Federal court rejects Interior’s ‘intentional decision’ to limit public comment.

 

Throughout his tenure as Interior Department secretary, Ryan Zinke has tried to prime the pump for oil and gas leasing on public lands. Under his leadership, and in pursuit of the Trump administration’s “American Energy Dominance” directive, the Bureau of Land Management has increased the area offered for oil and gas leases and relaxed regulations for natural gas producers on public lands.

But the BLM recently hit a snag in its push to lease more land for oil and gas production. In late September, a federal district court in Idaho issued a preliminary injunction stating that the Interior Department must hold off on energy leasing in sage grouse habitat to allow for more public participation. Because of the decision, oil and gas lease sales totaling more than 1 million acres and spanning six states have been delayed.

A wild horse drinks from a puddle near a pumpjack on BLM land in Wyoming.

The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, arguing that policies the BLM put in place in January unlawfully restrict public comment on oil and gas leases. The old guidelines called for 30-day comment and protest periods; under the new rules, individual BLM offices could do away with the initial public comment period entirely and limit the protest period to 10 days.

In his decision stating that the new policies are inadequate, Idaho Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush found the agency had purposefully circumvented public participation. “The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands,” he wrote.

Bush’s ruling was an initial judgment, which temporarily halted lease sales pending the court’s final decision. While the ruling was limited to critical habitat for sage grouse, the final judgment could overrule the BLM’s new public participation policies entirely, said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney for Advocates for the West, the nonprofit environmental law firm that tried the case. And the judge may go even further. “It is possible leases issued under the policy could be vacated,” Stellberg said. Even if such a sweeping judgment doesn’t happen, leases sold earlier this year could be challenged in separate lawsuits if the court rules that they went forward under unlawful policies.

The September court decision was one of several recent federal rulings against Zinke’s Interior Department. Courts have pushed back on Fish and Wildlife decisions regarding endangered species protections for Pacific fishers and Yellowstone’s bison and grizzly bears. And earlier this summer, a court in New Mexico ordered the BLM to consider climate change during environmental reviews.

As conservationists and the Interior Department await a final ruling in the sage grouse case, federal officials are preparing significantly smaller lease sales. In Wyoming, where the majority of the affected parcels are located, only 720 acres are still set to be auctioned in December, an area dwarfed by the more than 750,000 acres of Wyoming leases delayed by the temporary injunction. 

But those parcels haven’t escaped the auction block altogether. They are now scheduled to be leased in February, following a longer period for public comment and protest. How that expanded public input will impact any future push by the Interior Department to open more acres to oil and gas leasing is an open question.

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.