Federal Judge Halts Hundreds of Drilling Projects on Public Land

In a rebuke of the Trump administration’s ‘energy-first’ agenda, judge finds climate impacts of future oil and gas projects must be considered

In the first significant check on the Trump administration’s “energy-first” agenda, a US judge has temporarily halted hundreds of drilling projects for failing to take climate change into account.

photo of oil jack in wyoming
A federal judge has stalled drilling projects on more than 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming after finding that the BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing. Photo by Mr Hicks46 / Flickr.

Drilling had been stalled on more than 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming after it was ruled the Trump administration violated environmental laws by failing to consider greenhouse gas emissions. The federal judge has ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages US public lands and issues leases to the energy industry, to redo its analysis.

The decision stems from an environmental lawsuit. WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center sued the BLM in 2016 for failing to calculate and limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from future oil and gas projects.

The agency “did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing”, said Rudolph Contreras, a US district judge in Washington DC, in a ruling late on Tuesday. He added that the agency “must consider the cumulative impact of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions” generated by past, present, and future BLM leases across the country.

The decision is the first significant check on the climate impact of the Trump administration’s “energy-first” agenda that has opened up vast swaths of public land for mining and drilling. Environmental advocates are praising the move, with Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and EnergyProgram director, calling it a “triumph for our climate.”

“This ruling says that the entire oil and gas drilling program is off the rails, and moving forward illegally,” said Nichols.

Under Trump, the pace of leasing public lands for oil and gas development has surged. A recent study found the administration has made more than 13 million onshore acres available for leasing, far more than any similar period under Obama. The vast majority are located in the western states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The administration also plans to make large portions of the Atlantic available for oil and gas development, and the interior department has been criticized for favoring the energy industry.

The BLM did not reply to a request for comment. The Western Energy Alliance, one of the defendants in the case, also did not respond to a request. Kathleen Sgamma, its president, told the Washington Post: “This judge has ignored decades of legal precedent in this ruling. The judge is basically asking BLM to take a wild guess on how many wells will be developed on leases, prematurely.”

Nichols predicts there will be implications for public lands across the west. His group is now poised to bring litigation to block drilling on hundreds of thousands of acres in other states.

“With the science mounting that we need to aggressively rein in greenhouse gases, this ruling is monumental,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and energy and communities program director for the Western Environmental Law Center. “Every acre of our public land sold to the oil and gas industry is another blow to the climate, making this ruling a powerful reality check on the Trump administration and a potent tool for reining in climate pollution.”

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