Drilling halted on 300,000 acres in Wyoming

By Andrew Harris on 3/20/2019

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s pro-drilling policy took a blow when a federal judge ordered a halt to oil and gas exploration on more than 300,000 acres in Wyoming, saying the government must account for its cumulative effect on global climate change.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a pair of environmental conservation groups against the Obama administration in 2016, challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to lease federal lands for energy development in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It stressed the difference between assessing environmental impacts in isolation and measuring their collective impact.

“It is a big deal insofar as it’s going to force the government to think more completely and large-scale about the climate consequences of land management,” University of Pittsburgh law professor Joshua Galperin said of the ruling. “And it’s not such a big deal in that it doesn’t necessarily stop oil and gas drilling even in this case.”

The statute under which the groups sued, the National Environmental Policy Act, merely promotes conservation, while other federal laws, such as the Clean Air Act, actually restrict specific actions.

Ultimately, “it doesn’t stop them from doing what they want to do,” Galperin said of NEPA.

The Justice Department said it was reviewing the ruling. The BLM didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the decision.

“Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling,” U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras said in a 60-page decision Tuesday night.

While the judge faulted the federal government for merely summarizing the potential impacts without elaborating on the degree to which its decisions might contribute to climate change, he stopped short of voiding the Wyoming leases at issue. Instead, he ordered the bureau to re-examine nine of its environmental assessments and its “no significant impact” findings and barred the BLM from authorizing new drilling in the state until it satisfies its environmental-law obligations.

The two groups that sued, Wildearth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, challenged the federal government’s approval of 473 oil and gas leases covering 463,553 acres across the three states. The original lead defendant in their case was Sally Jewell, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of the interior from 2013 to 2017.

Ryan Zinke, whom President Donald Trump appointed to the post and who pushed for the use of federal lands to achieve U.S. “energy dominance,” came under an ethical cloud, and the president announced his resignation in December.

The court hasn’t yet addressed the groups’ Colorado and Utah lease concerns.

The case is Wildearth Guardians v. Zinke, 16-cv-1724, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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