Federal land managers could be reconsidering rentals of New Mexico public land to the oil and gas industry dating back to 2016 before drilling can occur, following a Wednesday ruling in federal court.
The settlement filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia with Judge Rudolf Contreras overseeing the case will see the administration of President Joe Biden reconsider leases on a total of about 4 million acres in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
The leases in question, and subsequent lawsuits from Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians and other environmental groups, were issued between 2016 and 2021.
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The New Mexico leases were first challenged in 2020 in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior questioning the sale of about 2 million acres in the state, along with Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah leased to oil and gas companies between 2016 and 2019.
Contreras ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, calling on the federal government to consider wider climate change impacts of not only production on federal lands but the burning of the fossil fuels produced.
This followed similar litigation in 2016 against about 460,000 acres leased in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where Contreras ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2019.
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Another suit was filed in 2021, challenging leases about a million acres in the Western states, including New Mexico, leased between 2016 and 2020.
Oil and gas industry advocacy groups the Western Energy Alliance and American Petroleum Institute intervened in the case for the defendant, but the judge dismissed their appeals.
The decision could lead to a reversal of leasing decisions issued during the administration of former-President Donald Trump, which was often criticized for relaxing environmental regulations on the oil and gas industry.
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It also comes at a time when environmentalists questions Biden’s previous commitments to stronger climate change policy amid calls from the White House for other countries to increase oil production during skyrocketing demand on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and bans on Russian imports after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.
A precedent could be set by the ruling as the BLM plans to hold a lease sale for the industry of about 500 acres in southeast New Mexico’s Permian Basin on June 16, along with several others throughout the American West.
These would be the first new oil and gas leases issued under the Biden administration after a halt on new leasing implemented in 2021 when the President took office was blocked last year by a federal judge in Louisiana.
Tripp Parks, vice president of government affairs at the Western Energy Alliance said the groups were opposed to American energy production, which could ease high energy prices facing the nation.
“For much of the past decade, litigious environmental groups who oppose all domestic oil and natural gas production have filed numerous lawsuits challenging BLM’s onshore leasing program,” he said.
“Even in a time of record high gasoline prices, these groups remain totally opposed to increased American energy development and celebrate any obstacle to lower prices.”
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Parks said he expected the BLM’s updated environmental analysis would hold up in court and the upcoming lease sales would not be impacted by the ruling or any other legal challenges.
“The Alliance is confident that BLM’s updated greenhouse gas analyses for the upcoming sales this month and next will withstand judicial scrutiny, and we anticipate the agency will apply the same analysis for the remanded sales at issue in the settled cases,” Parks said.
“Once the supplemental reviews are complete, we hope these litigious groups will end their concerted efforts to halt all production on federal lands by nitpicking the hard work of the dedicated public servants at BLM.”
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians said the ruling provided an opportunity for Biden to follow through with promises, he said, made during the campaign and in the President’s first year in office to crack down on fossil fuel pollution.
“This is a big win for the climate and a real test to see if the Biden administration is going to get serious about confronting the climate impacts of selling public lands for fracking,” Nichols said.
He said it was also a chance for the federal government to push renewable forms of energy like wind and solar, which Nichols argued would have less environmental impact and contribution to climate change.
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“With the oil and gas industry bent on despoiling America’s public lands and fueling the climate crisis, this is a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to chart a new path toward clean energy and independence from fossil fuels,” he said.
In the settlement signed by attorneys for the plaintiffs and the federal defendants the Bureau of Land Management, a sub agency of the DOI, was required to conduct additional analysis into the environmental impacts of the leases under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and issue new decisions.
The intervenors expressed objections that the BLM’s additional NEPA analysis would result in prejudice against the industry, but Contreras said in his ruling that it did not require the BLM to reach a conclusion for or against the leasing decisions.
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“Intervenors’ real concern appears to be that BLM may decide to vacate or alter its leasing decisions after conducting the additional NEPA analysis,” read the ruling. Again, because the settlement does not require BLM to reach a particular conclusion or even to conduct a full (environmental impact statement), any concerns about the agency’s ultimate decision are necessarily speculative.”
Plaintiffs in the case hoped the BLM would ultimately reduce the amount of public land it leased to the industry, arguing fossil fuel production in the U.S. created up to 900 million metric tons of air pollution – emissions equal to those of 200 million vehicles.
Fossil fuel consumption equates to nearly a quarter of greenhouse gases nationwide, per a report from WildEarth Guardians, while oil and gas together extracted from land and water accounted for 10 percent of country’s overall pollution linked to climate change.
“This suite of cases has entirely recast the federal government’s obligation to consider the cumulative climate impacts of oil and gas leasing on public lands,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.
“These settlements represent a fundamental opportunity for the Biden administration to align federal action with this climate reality and to keep its promise to present and future generations.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.