Enviros wage war with Interior over leasing’s climate impact

By Ellen M. Gilmer | 08/25/2016 01:05 PM EDT

This story was updated at 1:37 p.m. EDT.

Environmental groups launched a broad assault today on federal oil and gas leasing, accusing the Obama administration of ignoring the climate impacts from leasing on hundreds of thousands of acres since early 2015.

WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging 397 leases in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The leases collectively represent almost 380,000 acres.


According to the groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management issued the leases without analyzing the impacts on climate and taxpayers. They say the practice tarnishes President Obama’s legacy on climate issues.

"President Obama seems to get climate change, but he has an unexplainable blind spot when it comes to leasing public lands to oil and gas companies," WildEarth Guardians’ Tim Ream said in a statement. "The Obama administration leases a million acres of public lands a year to dirty energy companies but hasn’t bothered to disclose the inevitable climate pollution? That’s not just immoral, it’s illegal, and we’re going to stop it."

The groups argue in the legal filing that BLM failed to identify direct greenhouse gas emissions and effects from the lease sales; indirect, downstream emissions from the sales; and cumulative emissions from the leases when combined with existing onshore development. They say 10 percent of energy-related emissions contributing to climate change can be traced to development on public lands.

The lawsuit highlights the Obama administration’s pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions generally and, more specifically, to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

"Simple acknowledging a problem is insufficient when climate science demands that the time frame for action is now," said Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel, who is helping to represent the groups.

The groups are urging the district court to set aside the leases at issue and freeze new oil and gas leasing until Interior performs a broad-scale climate analysis for oil and gas in line with the "keep it in the ground" movement, which is angling for a permanent ban on fossil fuel development on public lands.

BLM officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America said the industry group was reviewing the challenge, which would affect many leases held by small companies.

The environmentalists’ lawsuit comes two weeks after oil and gas industry groups lodged their own complaint against the administration’s management of leasing. They say Interior has been inconsistent with lease sales, canceling and postponing them without reason, or bowing to environmental pressure — violating the Mineral Leasing Act’s directive for quarterly lease sales, the industry suit says.

Kathleen Sgamma, of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, which is involved in the industry leasing suit, called environmentalists’ challenge naive and out of touch with federal law.

"Our lawsuit challenges BLM’s failure to hold lease sales as required by the Mineral Leasing Act," she said in an email. "On the other hand, WildEarth is trying to force the government to violate the law. It’s much easier to just file a frivolous lawsuit than it is to change the law through Congress."