Climate cases set the stage for oil and gas leasing reform

The decisions could curb greenhouse gas emissions from public lands.

 

Over the last few years, residents of the western Colorado town of Paonia, the longtime headquarters of High Country News, have planted yard signs, skipped ultimate frisbee to attend public meetings, and embarrassed themselves and each other during a karaoke-themed fundraiser — all in the name of preventing oil and gas development in their watershed. Despite their efforts, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service approved major fracking projects, in 2015 and 2017, just above this small community, where agritourism and a renewable energy training facility are growing as coal jobs fade.

What public pushback didn’t stop, a federal court in Denver has temporarily halted. In late March, Colorado U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ruled the agencies failed to fully consider climate and wildlife impacts in approving the projects, and ordered them to rework their environmental reviews. It is the latest in a string of decisions regarding federal environmental planning for oil and gas development and leasing on public lands. Another judge also recently rejected oil and gas leases in Wyoming, citing an inadequate analysis of how they would harm the climate; together, the rulings have blocked development approved by both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Environmentalists see the decisions as major victories and an opportunity to slow down the “energy dominance” agenda of the Trump administration. At the same time, they’re aware that courts alone can’t prevent the administration from increasing leasing and drilling on public lands. But in the details of the decisions, and in growing public awareness and activism around climate action, they see a chance to slow or stop oil and gas development on public land.

Oil and gas drilling has been delayed above Paonia, Colorado because agencies didn't adequately analyze climate and wildlife impacts.
Courtesy of EcoFlight

The courts are merely delaying, rather than actually preventing fossil fuel development over climate concerns. That’s because the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) governs process, not outcomes. The law requires disclosure, “but NEPA doesn’t have the kind of teeth to force agencies to act on climate change,” said Clare Lakewood, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Practically speaking, (BLM) will do the analysis the court directed,” and likely continue with the fracking project in western Colorado, said Laura King, a lawyer for the Western Environmental Law Center. Steven Hall, the BLM Colorado communications director, said the agency will work with the groups that sued to address the issues identified by the court.

While it would be foolhardy to expect the Trump administration to change its plans based on a climate analysis, just a few years ago the Interior Department appeared to be taking climate change more seriously. In 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a moratorium on federal coal auctions and initiated an environmental review of the entire federal coal-leasing program. Though that review was never completed — and the moratorium was overturned in short order by Trump’s then-secretary, Ryan Zinke — the data collected during it were published late last year in a report by the U.S. Geological Survey. That report shows that the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels from federal lands is responsible for approximately one-fourth of the carbon dioxide emissions produced in the United States.

The report not only showed that federal lands are a major contributor to climate change, it also demonstrated that tools exist to track and estimate how they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Now, federal judges are keen to see those tools employed to inform agency decision-making. In a ruling that is delaying 303,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote that by omitting analysis of the cumulative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, the BLM failed to abide by environmental laws. He also wrote, “BLM could decline to sell the oil and gas leases at issue here if the environmental impact of those leases — including use of the oil and gas produced — would not be in the public’s long-term interest.”

The judge’s assertion is critical for activists who want to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Interior Secretary is directed by law to hold quarterly oil and gas lease sales. But if the BLM has the power to decline to issue the leases based on their ultimate contribution to climate change, that could pave the way for future administrations to phase-out or even eliminate fossil fuel leasing on public lands. “We think the agencies have complete discretion,” to issue a moratorium on new federal fossil fuel leasing, said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.

Climate action is not coming from the current partisan Congress, an Interior Department led by former industry lobbyists, or a president who blames wind turbines for cancer while praising the beauty of coal. But recent court decisions are giving future administrations a legal footing to phase out fossil fuel development on public lands, and bolstering environmental activists like the karaoke-singers in Paonia by posing an important question: Is fossil fuel development a sensible way to manage public land for future generations?

Note: This story has been updated to include comments from BLM.

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA.

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...