Climate and conservation groups defended the Biden administration in a brief filed today responding to a lawsuit brought by North Dakota seeking to force the federal government to hold more oil and gas lease sales in the state.
North Dakota sued last month, claiming that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had violated federal law by not offering oil and gas leases every three months. Mimicking lawsuits filed in December by the state of Wyoming and industry groups, North Dakota wants the court to order the BLM to hold quarterly lease sales.
“We’ll do everything we can to stop North Dakota’s dangerous scheme to require leasing more of the public’s land for fracking,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The federal government retains broad power to manage public land for the public good, and that includes not auctioning it off so that the oil and gas industry can keep killing the climate.”
It’s the latest in a series of lawsuits from oil and gas states and industry groups trying to rewrite federal law to benefit fossil fuel companies, but the Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that the Interior Department and the BLM have broad discretion to determine whether, when, where, and how much land to offer for oil and gas leasing.
“North Dakota seeks to rewrite the law so that oil and gas companies can force the government to offer new leases whenever the industry wants them,” said Michael Freeman, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “But BLM’s job is to manage lands in the public interest—not the whims of the oil and gas industry. We’re asking the court to reject North Dakota’s radical and far-fetched argument.”
North Dakota’s new lawsuit follows its similar 2021 suit challenging lease sale postponements. In September U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected similar claims brought by the fossil fuel industry and the state of Wyoming. The judge held that the BLM had acted within its legal authority when it postponed lease sales to ensure that it fully considered potential environmental harms.
“North Dakota is asking the court to hand over the keys to the castle for taxpayer-owned oil and gas resources, not to mention taxpayer-owned public lands,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The state’s assertion of control over federally held resources—explicitly directed to be managed according to the principles of multiple use—is not based on any federal legal authority.”
Federal fossil fuel production causes nearly one-quarter of U.S. carbon pollution while destroying land, polluting air and water, and degrading wildlife habitat. Scientific analyses show that carbon pollution from the world’s already-producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, will push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Avoiding such warming requires ending new investment in fossil fuel projects and phasing out production to keep as much as 40% of already developed fields in the ground.
“The oil and gas industry needs to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Dan Ritzman, director of Sierra Club’s Lands, Water, Wildlife. “By pursuing this lawsuit, Big Polluters are going against science and precedent and putting our communities and public lands at risk. We should be protecting these landscapes, not auctioning them off for private profit.”
“The Department of Interior must have discretion as to when, where, and how new leasing will occur, and where appropriate, to not lease lands for new oil and gas development.” said Linda Weiss, board member of Dakota Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. “I believe the discretion to allow leasing or not is necessary to allow for critical reform of the federal oil and gas program, including measures to improve bonding, address abandoned wells, mitigate the waste of associated gas and its climate and human health impacts, ensure more adequate protection for agricultural and other multiple uses, and allow for the proper analysis of climate impacts. More importantly, I am disappointed in and opposed BLM’s decision to resume leasing following the pause called for by Executive Order14008, which I believe reflects the agency’s long history of preferential treatment for the industry at the expense of human and environmental impacts.”
Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represent a coalition of conservation groups in the North Dakota litigation. Earthjustice represents the Sierra Club. The Western Environmental Law Center represents the Dakota Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and the Center for Biological Diversity.