A federal court late last Friday agreed to allow the Trump administration to conduct a legally required review of the climate consequences of selling public lands for fracking across the western U.S.
“The law is clear, and our cases have cemented that the federal government must study the climate impacts of the drilling and fracking it allows on public lands,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “But it is time for the federal government to not just improve its analysis, but begin to take action and make decisions that reflect the urgency of the climate crisis. We remain ready to ensure accountability and fight for our children’s right to a livable planet.”
“This is a powerful victory for the climate,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Finally, the Trump administration is admitting it can’t legally sell public lands to the oil and gas industry and ignore the consequences for our climate and future.”
In January, WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center filed suit in federal court over the sale of nearly two million acres of oil and gas leases across five western states. The case challenged the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s failure to disclose and analyze the climate consequences authorizing more fossil fuel development and more greenhouse gas pollution.
“Fracking leaks huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere, heating the climate and fueling massive health threats: deadly wildfires, flooding, damage to agriculture, and more,” said Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “This latest court win is a critical opportunity to move beyond fossil fuels and stop leasing public lands for oil and gas extraction.”
The suit was filed after a precedent-setting court win by the groups in March 2019 in a virtually identical legal challenge. That case, filed in 2016, targeted the sale of more than 450,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
In response to the latest lawsuit, the Bureau of Land Management agreed its actions flouted the law. In early October, the agency filed a motion with the court asking for a “voluntary remand” of most of its leasing, effectively conceding its violations by asking the court to give it a chance to fix its mistakes.
The agency requested a remand of 1.81 million acres of oil and gas leases, or 2,834 square miles, in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. The agency did not request a remand over the sale of nearly 86,000 acres of oil and gas leasing in Montana and New Mexico.
The affected leases include 82,976 acres in Colorado, 22,790 acres in Montana, 41,328 acres in New Mexico, 7,478 acres in Utah, and 1,659,752 acres in Wyoming.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has ramped up oil and gas leasing on public lands under an “energy dominance” agenda.
To accelerate the sale of leases, the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management have rolled back environmental safeguards, streamlined environmental reviews, and eliminated public involvement.
The administration has also taken extreme steps to deny and defy climate science. As noted by the groups in their lawsuit, the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management have downplayed the climate consequences of authorizing more fossil fuel production on public lands.
The groups’ lawsuit, which targets oil and gas leasing approved between late 2016 and 2019, comes as science increasingly supports winding down and ultimately phasing out fossil fuel production as a key strategy to confronting the climate crisis.
A 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report found that oil and gas produced from public lands and waters contributes to 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And a 2018 report by the Stockholm Environmental Institute confirmed that ending public lands fossil fuel production could significantly reduce nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Ending the sale of public lands for fracking would also yield enormous health benefits. Besides impacting the climate, the fracking science compendium released in June 2019 by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York confirmed extensive health risks associated with oil and gas extraction, including cancer, asthma, pre-term birth, and more.
“This case isn’t just about defending our climate and public lands, it’s also about defending the law” said Daniel Timmons, staff attorney for WildEarth Guardians. “We’re pleased the federal government has agreed to conduct the additional review needed to fully account for and address the environmental impacts of its actions, including significant climate impacts.”
Barbara Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 301-806-6826