A federal district judge in Montana has rejected a bid by environmental groups to force the Interior Department to curb greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Judge Sam Haddon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana in a ruling late Friday said methane emissions from wells, pipelines and other infrastructure in Montana were too insignificant to meaningfully change the Earth's climate.
The ruling was a blow to environmental groups that have fought for years to force the Bureau of Land Management to require drillers to minimize the escape of methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
But it was a victory for drilling proponents including the American Petroleum Institute, Western Energy Alliance and Montana Chamber of Commerce that intervened in the case, arguing that emissions from the nearly 100 leases at issue in Montana accounted for 0.000015 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental groups "have not demonstrated that the sale of the oil and gas leases at issue will lead to climate change impacts resulting in injury to their recreational and aesthetic interests in lands near the leases," Haddon wrote in a 22-page opinion. "The required causal link cannot be established by merely showing that methane emissions from lease sites will make an infinitesimal contribution to global GHG levels, as 'anyone could be liable for the most innocuous of facts -- driving to work, watching the television or [turning] on a light' -- as all contribute to global warming and climate change."
The Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians and Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project filed the lawsuit in early 2011, claiming that BLM had failed to consider limiting methane emissions when it sold drilling rights on roughly 80,000 acres in Montana in 2008 and 2010.
They argued that a ton of greenhouse gases is just as damaging from a small source like an oil and gas well as it is from a power plant.
"While individual leases may seem insignificant in isolation, any individual source of greenhouse gas emissions seems insignificant relative to total global emissions," said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the groups. "Indeed, that's one of the causes of climate change: A huge number of individual sources that, when added up, are wrecking our atmosphere."
Moreover, the groups pointed to a 2010 U.S. EPA estimate that oil and gas systems account for more than one-fifth of domestic methane emissions and nearly 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
They argued BLM could require cost-effective drilling technologies and practices that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector and allow more natural gas to make it to market.
But BLM in 2010 said it would be impossible to determine how the Montana leases themselves would affect the climate. Therefore, there were no appropriate ways to regulate methane at the leasing stage (Land Letter, Aug. 19, 2010).
BLM's review found that projected development of lands identified for leasing in the eight field offices across Montana and the High Plains of the western Dakotas would emit up to 8.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually over the next 20 years, or about the equivalent of one large coal-fired power plant.
BLM has also not sought to curb methane emissions at the drilling stage, according to its response to the environmental groups' Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year.
The energy groups argued that without proof that methane emissions would affect the livelihoods of the environmental groups, they had no grounds to sue.
"Plaintiffs make no attempt to analyze where the tipping point exists," the energy groups said in the case. "If BLM had auctioned 10 leases in Montana instead of approximately 100, would plaintiffs have standing to challenge them on the same theories?"
The Obama administration has so far sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from larger sources such as coal-fired power plants -- which are responsible for roughly half of domestic CO2 emissions -- and from the automobile fleet.