10 Million Acres Leased for Oil and Gas by Obama, Yet Climate Change Consistently Ignored

Washington, DC

WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility today filed a landmark federal lawsuit to defend our climate, our health, and American public lands from widespread oil and gas leasing, drilling, and fracking. Plaintiffs are challenging 397 leases spanning almost 380,000 acres.

Since President Obama took office, his administration has sold more than 10 million acres of public land rights to the oil and gas industry, often for as little as $2.00 per acre. That’s an area 50 percent larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Grand Canyon, Olympic, Yosemite, and Ground Smoky Mountains National Parks, combined.  Nonetheless, the Administration refuses to disclose the impacts of this oil and gas leasing on our climate.

“President Obama seems to get climate change, but he has an unexplainable blind spot when it comes to leasing public lands to oil and gas companies,” said Tim Ream, WildEarth Guardians climate and energy campaign director. “The Obama administration leases a million acres of public lands a year to dirty energy companies, but hasn’t bothered to disclose the inevitable climate pollution?  That’s not just immoral, it’s illegal, and we’re going to stop it.”

Today’s suit challenges the Obama Administration’s leasing of 379,950 acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry. Leasing conveys a right to companies to drill and frack as long as they want, meaning large swaths of public lands have been transformeded into major industrial sites at the expense of recreation, wildlife, and clean air and water. (Photos here.) In recent years, beloved landscapes, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Utah’s Red Rock Country, and archeological hotspots around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon have all been leased for fracking.

“Americans want and expect their public lands to be managed to protect pristine air and crystal clear water, not creating smog alerts and fracking waste spills,” said Dr. Catherine Thomasson, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “In addition, the health impacts from climate change — from extreme weather events to lethal heat waves — make clear we must draw the line.  We can’t allow this drilling.  Its climate health impacts are far too great. ”

Public lands leasing has opened the door to vast amounts of climate pollution. Currently, almost 10 percent of all U.S. energy-related climate pollution can be traced back to the extraction of publicly-owned oil and gas. Yet, neither an accounting of greenhouse gas emissions nor estimates of climate impacts from public lands oil and gas leasing have ever been disclosed by the Obama administration, despite being legally required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Today’s legal action directly challenges 375,000 acres of leases that have been sold by the Department of the Interior in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming since early 2015.  Among the lands opened up for fracking in the past year are the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado, the Red Desert of southern Wyoming, and the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. This suit aims to protect these and other public lands, while pressing for climate accountability.

“The Interior Department is in climate denial,” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “We’re breaking global temperature records every month and every month Interior ignores climate impacts and leases more and more oil and gas from public lands. When does it stop?”

“Simply acknowledging a problem is insufficient when climate science demands that the timeframe for action is now,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and climate & energy program director at Western Environmental Law Center. “We cannot continue to blindly commit our public lands to oil and gas exploitation and have a shot a meeting the administration’s climate goals.”

The lawsuit seeks what the Obama administration has already ordered for federal coal leasing: a program-wide analysis of federal oil and gas program impacts on the climate and on taxpayers, and a moratorium on new leasing until that analysis is complete. The suit also advances the goals of the “Keep it in the Ground” movement, which aims to permanently halt new coal, oil, and gas leasing on public lands and waters. (Photos here.)

A moratorium during the required climate study would have no impact on U.S. oil and gas production, as only 35 percent of all leased public lands are actually producing. Industry has been roundly criticized for hoarding publicly owned oil and gas leases for private speculation at the expense of the public.

The lawsuit was filed today in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Plaintiffs are represented by Samantha Ruscavage-Barz of WildEarth Guardians and Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.

A story map that shows and explains the challenged leases is available here.


Existing leases for coal and for onshore and offshore oil and gas already total more than 65 million acres. Even if new leasing were to stop today, existing leased acreage would maintain projected oil and gas production levels for several decades. Fully developing all existing leases would be inconsistent though with the president’s climate pledge in Paris last year.

For more than two years, Guardians and allies have formally protested hundreds of Department of the Interior oil and gas leases on the grounds of inadequate analysis of climate change impacts. In January, in conjunction with the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of California – Irvine, Guardians formally petitioned the Interior Department to undertake a programmatic study of the climate impacts of its public lands oil and gas leasing program. The administration has failed to address the protests or the petition, leaving a lawsuit as the only legal recourse.  Physicians for Social Responsibility joins the lawsuit due to its concerns over air pollution and, most compelling, climate change, which the World Health Association has called one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st century.

Kyle Tisdel, Western Environmental Law Center, 575-613-8050, 
Tim Ream, WildEarth Guardians, 541-531-8541, 
Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, WildEarth Guardians, 505-401-4180, 
Catherine Thomasson, MD, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 503-819-1170, 

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