February 8, 2023 – Seventeen groups represented by Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center moved to intervene today to defend the Biden administration’s postponement of several oil and gas lease sales. A September ruling in U.S. District Court in Wyoming affirmed the administration’s ability to postpone lease sales, but the state of Wyoming and industry groups are suing in an attempt to rewrite the law to benefit fossil fuel companies.
“Last year, the court affirmed the Bureau of Land Management’s authority to postpone oil and gas lease sales in order to make certain they adhere to the law,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The court should shut down Wyoming and the oil and gas industry’s transparent attempt to circumvent this basic principle.”
In December, Wyoming and two industry trade groups challenged the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision not to hold lease sales during parts of 2021 and 2022. Even though the BLM has numerous lease sales scheduled in 2023 – nearly half a million acres are being considered for leasing – the plaintiffs claim the agency has an “unwritten policy” pausing leasing and want the court to order the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the BLM to hold lease sales every three months across the West. The Supreme Court and 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that the Interior Department and the BLM have broad discretion to determine the timing and scope of lease sales, including not holding them at all.
“Forcing Interior to lease without fully weighing public impacts is industry’s attempt to continue looting public resources by accumulating excess leases at bargain basement prices,” said Bob LeResche, Powder River Basin Resource Council board member and chair of Western Organization of Resource Councils. “Industry already has more than 26 million acres of public mineral estate tied up in oil and gas leases, and drillers have stockpiled more than 9,000 federal drilling permits. The industry could continue drilling and producing as normal for decades even with no new leases.”
“This is nothing more than an effort to hand over management of our public lands to the oil and gas industry,” said Michael Freeman, senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The law is clear that the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management have broad discretion to determine when, where, and whether to hold oil and gas lease sales. The administration has followed the law, but the fossil fuel industry is attempting to rewrite the law in its favor.”
In September U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected similar claims by the fossil fuel industry and Wyoming. The judge held that the BLM had acted within its legal authority when it postponed lease sales to ensure that it fully considered potential environmental harms.
“This is an attempt to strip away the crucial role and authority of the Department of the Interior to determine how to manage public lands to best serve the public interest,” said Julia Stuble, Wyoming senior manager at The Wilderness Society. “Handing over this power to the oil and gas industry would threaten not only public lands, but also the communities that depend on them for clean air and clean water, along with efforts to transition to a just, clean energy future.”
“Today’s filing demonstrates that we refuse to sit back and allow Big Oil to push for policies that perpetuate dirty energy,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “The law is crystal clear: the federal government holds broad authority over whether, when, and how to lease public lands for oil and gas development. The energy sector should be looking to the future of justly sourced renewable energy, not pushing outdated technology that exploits people and the planet.”
“This lawsuit is just another ploy by the fossil fuel industry and its political stooges to wrest control of the public’s land for more climate-destroying profits,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The federal government retains broad power to manage public land for the public good, and that includes not leasing land for more fracking industrialization.”
“It is clearly within the Department of Interior’s authority to decide when and where to lease for fossil fuel development, including any pause to review the rules. It’s long overdue for the federal oil and gas program to be updated to ensure protections for public health, environment, wildlife and communities,” said Barbara Vasquez, board member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils from Cowdry, Colorado. “In my community, we are experiencing firsthand what is at stake when BLM leases public lands for oil and gas. When leases are developed, rural landscapes and communities are industrialized with the inevitable spills and emissions hazardous to public health and environment. But you don’t have to live next door. Climate change is driving our accelerating transition to renewables and calling for the managed decline of fossil fuel development on public lands. The BLM must be a leader on this change.”
“For too long BLM has blindly leased public lands to oil and gas companies without actually understanding the impacts of development,” said Peter Hart, attorney with Wilderness Workshop. “Now the agency is working to reevaluate its oil and gas management and to assess impacts, like those that new development will have on the climate. It just makes sense to pause new leasing until the program is brought into this century, and it is well within the agency’s authority.”
“Our public lands must be part of the climate solution, instead of making the problem worse,” said Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming. “Stabilizing our climate for future generations means protecting public land from oil and gas development, and despite what Wyoming and the oil and gas industry claim, the Department of Interior clearly has the right to postpone lease sales.”
“The Department of the Interior needs the latitude to manage our public lands, to permanently protect treasures such as Grand Teton National Park and its surrounding landscape,” said Matt Kirby, senior director of landscape conservation for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We reject this attempt to force fossil fuel development on America’s public lands, in spite of what is in the public interest and may threaten national parks.”
Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represent a coalition of conservation and citizen groups in the Wyoming litigation. Earthjustice represents Friends of the Earth, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, Valley Organic Growers Association, Western Colorado Alliance, Western Watersheds Project, and Wilderness Workshop. The Western Environmental Law Center represents the Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, Food & Water Watch, Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and WildEarth Guardians.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the public lands, wildlife, and communities of the western U.S. in the face of a changing climate. We envision a thriving, resilient western U.S., abundant with protected public lands and wildlife, powered by clean energy, and defended by communities rooted in an ethic of conservation. www.westernlaw.org