A federal judge has agreed with a Bureau of Land Management proposal that it assess the climate impact of decisions leading to the oil and gas leasing of some 1.8 million acres in Colorado and other states. The judge also decided he currently has no basis for revoking those lease decisions.
The order by Judge Rudolph Contreras of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia applies to nearly 83,000 acres of leases in Colorado, with a significant amount of that in northwest Colorado. Large concentrations of affected leases are in western Rio Blanco County, east of Craig, southeast of Walden and east of Great Sand Dunes National Park. Other affected Colorado acreage includes isolated parcels northeast of Collbran.
WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Western Environmental Law Center sued in January, saying the BLM and Interior Department failed to disclose and analyze the climate impacts of authorizing more fossil fuel development and greenhouse gas pollution.
The groups say the suit was filed after a precedent-setting win by the groups in March 2019 in a virtually identical legal challenge. Contreras also ruled in that case, halting further drilling on more than 300,000 acres of leasing in Wyoming to let the BLM supplement related environmental documents to address what Contreras found to be a failure by the agency to take a hard look at greenhouse gas impacts. Contreras did not vacate those leases, however.
The latest Contreras ruling applies to 27 oil and gas leasing decisions pertaining to acreage mostly in Wyoming, but also in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. The Colorado acreage was leased in sales held between 2016-19 and involving multiple field offices, locally including the Grand Junction, Colorado River Valley and White River offices.
In October, the BLM filed a motion asking for a voluntary remand of the environmental assessments and other materials documenting its leasing decisions, meaning they would go back to the BLM so it can supplement them to address climate impacts. In a four-page ruling by Contreras, he granted the government’s motion asking both for the remand and that the lease decisions not be vacated.
The environmental groups didn’t oppose the remand but also wanted the lease decisions canceled. But Contreras said he hadn’t reviewed the documents underlying the leasing decisions and as a result has “no basis to vacate the agency action.”
The government had argued that the conservation groups could challenge any decisions after the remand if they still think the leasing decisions are unlawful.
Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said in an email that Contreras “is giving the agency a chance to go back and fix its mistakes,” but is not undoing the lease decisions.
“Still, the agency is going to have to get the job done right or else it risks the leases ultimately being vacated,” he said.
In a news release he called the outcome “a powerful victory for the climate,” adding, “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.”
The conservation groups unsuccessfully asked Contreras to bar development of the leases during the remand and to ensure the BLM’s “post-remand decisions are not limited by the agency’s sense of obligation to the lessees.” But Contreras said in his ruling that the groups haven’t filed for a preliminary injunction requesting those conditions and an opposition to the government motion isn’t the appropriate procedural vehicle for seeking them.
Nichols said the conservation groups in the case are trying to get a handle on how many leases have been developed or may see development, and is assuming at least some in western Colorado have been developed.
BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said in a statement that the agency is pleased with the court’s decision to grant its request to conduct more National Environmental Policy Act analysis of its “lawful leasing decisions.”
Tripp Parks with the Western Energy Alliance industry group, which intervened in the case, said in a statement that in early 2019 BLM began doing additional environmental analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for all its sales based on what Contreras had ruled. He said that now Contreras has approved the agency’s “request to voluntarily remand the environmental reviews for 20 lease sales that took place prior to his ruling in 2019. With this order, BLM now has the opportunity to update older leasing decisions, several of which took place under the Obama Administration, so they match what the agency has been doing for the past two years.
“Judge Contreras rightly denied the environmental plaintiffs’ request to vacate the leases in the interim, as he has repeatedly declined to do in the past. Going forward, we are confident that BLM is doing the proper analysis of the environmental impacts of lease sales and they will withstand plaintiffs’ unending requests to end BLM leasing,” Parks said.
The BLM didn’t ask for remand in the case of three lease sales — two in Montana and one in New Mexico — that are part of the litigation. Nichols said the conservation groups’ suit “still proceeds” in the case of those sales.