Over 999,000 readers this year!

Court validates BLM’s climate analysis, dings agency for failing to show how it factored in oil and gas lease sale

The agency also failed to adequately account for impacts to drinking water, wildlife and climate, according to a federal district court judge.

A mule deer doe stands in the sagebrush in southwestern Wyoming. (Photo by Tayler LaSharr)

The Bureau of Land Management “reasonably exhausted available tools” to analyze the climate implications of June 2022 oil and gas lease sales in Wyoming and five other western states, but it failed to show its work or explain how the analysis factored into its decision to proceed with the sales, particularly in Wyoming.

However, the sale in Wyoming, which included 122 lease parcels spanning some 120,000 mineral lease acres, is largely invalidated based on vagueness in the bureau’s climate analysis decision making, as well as failures to adequately consider impacts to drinking water and wildlife. But what that will mean in practice has yet to be determined by the court.

That’s the upshot of two separate rulings handed down Friday by U.S. District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper regarding two separate lawsuits brought by conservation groups challenging the sales.

Both conservation groups and the oil and gas industry have claimed victory in the dual rulings.

Cooper’s “memorandum opinion” in the Dakota Resource Council et al v. Department of Interior lawsuit is a “huge win,” according to one industry group, because it mostly validates the BLM’s methods and legal limitations of accounting for potential climate implications of its oil and gas lease sales.

The federal government has yet to define what level of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions might trigger a more comprehensive analysis in oil and gas lease sales, according to industry group Western Energy Alliance. 

This rig was drilling for oil north of Casper in 2014. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“It is illogical to expect BLM, which is the expert agency on land management but not the government’s climate change scientific research agency, to do so on its own,” the group said in a prepared statement.

Cooper’s ruling in that case, which targeted all six BLM lease sales across the West, “finds no legal error in the Bureau’s analysis or its decision to approve the challenged lease sales,” the judge wrote. “Operating at the frontiers of science, BLM reasonably exhausted available tools to analyze the lease sales’ environmental consequences.”

However, in his summary judgment regarding Wilderness Society v. United States Department of Interior, Cooper not only found the BLM culpable of not being transparent with the public regarding how its climate analysis affects such leasing actions, he largely invalidated the agency’s Wyoming lease sale for that and numerous failures to consider other environmental implications.

The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth hailed that ruling as a win for the environment as well as rural communities in Wyoming that rely on healthy landscapes. 

“Importantly, the court’s ruling shows that the agency must factor into its leasing decisions the enormous costs that greenhouse gas emissions stemming from its oil and gas program impose on public land resources and on the communities that depend on them for clean air and water,” The Wilderness Society’s Director and Senior Staff Attorney Ben Tettlebaum said in a prepared statement.

“We are beyond pleased with this outcome,” Friends of the Earth Legal Director Hallie Templeton said in a prepared statement. “This ruling underscores that federal agencies simply cannot ignore climate, wildlife and water impacts when analyzing the myriad risks of oil and gas leasing, whether in Wyoming or across the country.” 

The court is expected in the coming months to issue its “remedy” regarding The Wilderness Society’s lawsuit and the BLM’s shortcomings in the Wyoming sale. That could include conducting more environmental analysis, adding development stipulations or even rescinding or canceling some lease parcels that were sold.

Validating lease reforms

For now, Cooper’s ruling in The Wilderness Society’s challenge, according to conservation groups, helps underscore a long effort to reform the federal oil and gas leasing program, which began under President Barack Obama, was paused under President Donald Trump and resumed under President Joe Biden. Those reforms, which include higher royalty payments, a minimum bid for new parcels and numerous wildlife and natural resource protections, appear to motivate oil and gas companies to be less speculative in the federal lease parcels they nominate, according to Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss.

For example, in preparing the June 2022 lease sale, the BLM considered a total of 459 oil and gas lease parcels that were held over from nominations made during the latter part of the Trump administration. The agency removed more than 300 of those parcels from the sale, including 260 that were located in “critical” sage grouse habitat.

Industry nominations have since shrunk, which the Center for Western Priorities attributes to both program reforms and a flood of new interest in renewable energy thanks to federal incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

“This [June 2022] sale was pre-IRA,” Weiss told WyoFile, “and BLM was rushed into it. So it’s not surprising that the environmental analysis might have been deficient. Because the IRA changed everything after that sale, I think the big takeaway is that this case is the last of its kind unless a future administration ignores the IRA and tries to open the floodgates to unfettered lease sales again.”

Wyoming, Wilderness Society lawsuit

The BLM “erred at times when assessing the Wyoming sale’s impact on groundwater and wildlife and in explaining how its analysis of [greenhouse gas] emissions influenced its leasing decisions,” Cooper wrote in his 59-page decision

In analyzing potential wildlife impacts, the BLM repeatedly pointed to “outdated” data in its resource management plans rather than conducting new analysis specific to areas considered for the lease sale, according to the court. “The BLM cannot hang its hat where it never placed a peg,” Cooper wrote. “And, even then, it is hard to understand how the RMPs could have accounted for these effects when those RMPs were prepared years ago and, on BLM’s own account, were based on assumptions that may no longer ring true.”

Laramie resident Nate Martin, party to The Wilderness Society’s lawsuit, said he joined the lawsuit when he discovered the sale included areas in south-central Wyoming where he and his father have hunted mule deer for decades. Martin, who is also executive director of progressive advocacy group Better Wyoming, said he was pleased with the court’s acknowledgment that the BLM needs to more actively avoid leasing in critical wildlife habitat.

“The [mule deer] herd was hit hard last year,” Martin said, referring to an especially deadly winter for deer and pronghorn. “So, as responsible hunters, we’re trying not to over-pressure the herd. If hunters are willing to make sacrifices to preserve the animals, so should developers.”

A mule deer bounds away after being captured, measured and released near Superior. (Benjamin Kraushaar and Wyoming Migration Initiative)

The judge mostly agreed with plaintiffs’ arguments that, although the BLM said it analyzed potential climate impacts resulting from the sale, it didn’t show its work or explain how the analysis factored into its decision to move forward with the sale.

“The Bureau did not adequately explain how it considered the environmental effects of [greenhouse gas] emissions that, in its own telling, carry a hefty price tag in terms of societal costs,” the judge wrote. “If, in fact, the Wyoming [BLM] office did not consider [greenhouse gas] emissions when rendering its decision on the challenged lease sale, it would appear to have overlooked what is widely regarded as the most pressing environmental threat facing the world today.”

A full accounting of potential climate impacts resulting from a particular oil and gas lease sale will not preclude the BLM from continuing to offer federal fossil fuels for development, according to Tettlebaum of the Wilderness Society. The agency isn’t beholden to a cost-benefit analysis. However, a full accounting of the agency’s climate analysis would provide the public the opportunity to scrutinize the BLM’s rationale for such actions, according to Tettlebaum, and it should force the agency to be more selective in what it offers for potential development.

“We think [BLM] has the discretion, and should exercise its authority, to [limit leasing] based on a variety of factors, including greenhouse gas emissions and their climate impacts on public lands,” Tettlebaum told WyoFile.

The state of Wyoming, which joined the lawsuit as a defendant, and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, however, have argued that the myriad federal regulations already attached to producing oil and gas on federal lands ensure a smaller climate impact than if those minerals were produced elsewhere.

A sage grouse amid its namesake habitat. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming noted Cooper’s conclusion that, “It is no easy feat to decide, say, whether increased domestic oil production — and the job creation and energy security accompanying it — outweigh the marginal contribution to global climate change.”

“Demand for petroleum products is not diminishing, and the industry will continue to meet that demand for years to come,” PAW’s Vice President and Director of Communications Ryan McConnaughey told WyoFile. “Those resources can be produced domestically and on federally managed lands, or elsewhere.”

Meantime, the course correction that the court has issued for the June 2022 sale appears to underscore the BLM’s new direction with the oil and gas leasing program, The Wilderness Society’s Wyoming Senior Manager Julia Stuble said.

“The agency, in the last couple years, has put a lot of effort into analyzing the leases and questioning where there are conflicts with oil and gas lease [tracts] and other values, including wildlife habitat and highlighting migration corridors,” Stuble said. “I think there’s a lot to get behind here for those of us in Wyoming who love getting outdoors and who want to see a Wyoming unspoiled — one that we can leave to future generations to experience.”

The BLM is preparing its second quarterly oil and gas lease sale in Wyoming, which will occur sometime this spring. Click here for more information.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.