U.S. judge blocks oil, gas drilling over climate change
BILLINGS, Mont. — A judge has blocked oil and gas drilling on almost 500 square miles in Wyoming and says the government must consider the cumulative climate change impact of leasing broad swaths of U.S. public lands for oil and gas exploration.
The order marks the latest in a string of court rulings over the past decade — including one last month in Montana — that have faulted the U.S. for inadequate consideration of greenhouse gas emissions when issuing leases and permits for oil, gas or coal production.
But U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington, D.C., appeared to go a step further than judges have previously in his order issued late Tuesday.
Previous rulings focused on individual lease sales or permits. But Contreras said that when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auctions public lands for oil and gas leasing, officials must consider emissions from past, present and foreseeable future oil and gas leases nationwide.
“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,” Contreras wrote.
The ruling coincides with an aggressive push by President Trump’s administration to open more public lands to energy development.
It came in a lawsuit that challenged leases issued in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado in 2015 and 2016, during President Obama’s administration. Only the leases in Wyoming were immediately addressed in Contreras’ ruling, which blocks federal officials from issuing drilling permits until they conduct a new environmental review looking more closely at greenhouse gas emissions.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt said the agency was still reviewing the ruling and “determining a path forward regarding the implications.”
The case was brought by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
WildEarth Guardians climate program director Jeremy Nichols predicted the ruling would have much bigger implications than a halt to drilling in some areas of Wyoming — assuming the government does what Contreras has asked.
“This is the Holy Grail ruling we’ve been after, especially with oil and gas,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians climate program director. “It calls into question the legality of oil and gas leasing that’s happening everywhere.
“This forces them to pull their head out of the sand and look at the bigger picture,” he added.
The BLM already does the correct analysis of greenhouse gas effects at the leasing stage, which changes once it knows whether and how many oil and gas wells might be drilled on leased land, an oil and gas industry group said.
“The judge is asking BLM to take a wild guess at how many wells would be developed on these leases,” said Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance.