United States judge halts hundreds of drilling projects in groundbreaking climate change ruling

Pat Wise
March 23, 2019

Last night's ruling has "broad ramifications" for BLM's approach to analyzing cumulative emissions, said Kyle Tisdel, director of WELC's climate and energy program.

The Western Energy Alliance, one of the defendants in the case, also did not respond to a request. According to a Department of Interior study released last fall, fossil fuel emissions from public lands accounted for 25 percent of US climate pollution. So far in 2019, the administration auctioned off or proposed leasing more than 2.1 million acres.

Emissions from extracting and burning fossil fuels from federal land generates the equivalent of 1.4 billion tons annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, according to a November report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The ruling was in a lawsuit challenging leases issued in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado in 2015 and 2016.

"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", the 60-page opinion says. The order marks the latest in a string of court rulings over the past decade that have faulted the United States for inadequate consideration of greenhouse gas emissions when approving oil, gas, and coal projects on federal land, per the AP.

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The judge concluded, "BLM failed to take a "hard look" at GHG emissions from the Wyoming Lease Sales", and therefore the permits issued for those sales did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA.

Contreras did not block drilling statewide, but ordered the BLM to not allow drilling on 282 lease sites until it reconsiders its analyses.

"That determination does not excuse BLM from giving serious consideration to the Court's concerns", Contreras wrote.

Under Trump's direction, Interior has already vastly expanded onshore oil and gas leasing activity, and is also preparing to release a proposal that could open up new waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic to offshore drilling over the objections of most coastal states. "Compliance with NEPA can not be reduced to a bureaucratic formality, and the Court expects 60 [BLM] not to treat remand as an exercise in filling out the proper paperwork", he wrote. "This latest court win is not only a victory for our health and future, but it reinforces that the oil and gas industry doesn't get a free pass to pollute". "Every acre of our public land sold to the oil and gas industry is another blow to the climate, making this ruling a powerful reality check on the Trump administration and a potent tool for reining in climate pollution".

When Fortune asked about the Trump administration's oil-drilling plans, Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management at Interior, said in a statement: "President Trump has given clear direction that he wants to safely secure additional domestic energy from public lands on behalf of the American people... that will result in more jobs and economic growth, make America safer, benefit state and local conservation programs, and improve infrastructure".

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