Judge cites climate change in block of Wyoming oil, gas drilling

Trinidad Drilling rigs are seen off of Way Highway 59 outside of Douglas, Wyo., in 2013. A federal judge has blocked oil and gas drilling on almost 500 square miles in Wyoming, saying the government must consider cumulative climate change impacts of leasing public lands across the U.S. for energy development. (Leah Millis/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Faulting the Trump administration for its failure to consider climate change late Tuesday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the auction of federal land in Wyoming for oil and gas drilling.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras said that, while the Bureau of Land Management had summarized potential impacts of climate change, it failed to provide the information necessary to understand the level of climate impact from oil and gas leases.

“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.

Wildearth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility challenged the auctions in the waning months of the Obama administration.

The 2016 complaint alleged that despite the White House’s commitment at the time to “a clean energy future,” the bureau violated the National Environmental Policy act by failing to adequately consider the greenhouse gas emissions that oil and gas development would generate.

The American Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance and Petroleum Association of Wyoming intervened as defendants, along with the states of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, an attorney with Wildearth Guardians, called Tuesday’s ruling “a huge win for the climate, health, and public lands.”

“Importantly, it comes as the Trump Administration, driven by climate denial, is opening up public lands for fracking at unprecedented rates,” Ruscavage-Barz said in an email. “The ruling is a critical bulwark in defending communities, public lands, and climate from unfettered oil and gas development under Trump.”

The 282 leases at issue cover roughly 303,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming. While Contreras agreed that the administration should have assessed drilling impacts “across the leased parcels as a whole,” he determined that site-specific analysis is not required at the leasing stage.

“At the leasing stage, BLM could not reasonably foresee the projects to be undertaken on specific leased parcels, nor could it evaluate the impacts of those projects on a parcel-by-parcel basis,” the opinion says.

But Contreras soundly rejected the administration’s argument that it would be “overly speculative” to quantify greenhouse gas emissions during the during the leasing stage.

“That assertion is belied by an administrative record replete with information on oil and gas development and GHG emissions,” the opinion says, using an abbreviation for greenhouse gas.

According to the ruling, environmental assessments contain data that would enable the agency “to project the pace and scope of oil and gas development on the leased parcels.”

Noting that BLM might be able to substantiate its prior conclusions, Contreras declined to vacate the Wyoming leases. Instead he temporarily blocked them from moving forward and ordered the agency to redo its analysis.

But he cautioned: “That determination does not excuse BLM from giving serious consideration to the court’s concerns.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.

Barbara Gottlieb with Physicians for Social Responsibility meanwhile said the organization was “proud” to have joined the lawsuit.

“Fracking contributes to the destruction of a livable climate for all of us.  It also endangers the health of people living near wells, pipelines, compressor stations and other fracking infrastructure,” Gottlieb said in an email. “We can’t keep disregarding the harm that comes from extracting and burning oil and gas. We already face a climate health emergency. The impacts are just too great.”