A ruling by a federal judge on Tuesday to block drilling on over 303,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming could have widespread implications for the sale of oil and gas leases on public lands across the West, including the upcoming sale of nine parcels of BLM land in the greater Chaco region that will go up for auction online on March 28.
In his landmark decision, US District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the Department of Interior violated federal law by failing to take into account the cumulative climate impact resulting from oil and gas drilling on public lands.
"The BLM failed to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of leasing because it failed to quantify and forecast aggregate GHG emissions from oil and gas development," writes Contreras in the ruling.
"Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling," he writes.
Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel, who brought the case against the BLM, tells SFR the decision has been a long time coming. "Land use cases can take years to get through the courts," says Tisdel.
Over the course of the last decade, the firm has won a series of smaller cases demanding that the federal government take a closer look at the climate impacts of its decisions, including a case last year regarding the lease sale of land in the Santa Fe National Forest. But Tisdel says Tuesday's ruling is the first time the court has recognized the full implications of the Trump Administration's energy policies at the national scale.
"The decision by judge Contreras is precedential authority that can be cited at any federal court or state court in the country. … This case absolutely will be cited in New Mexico and could mark a shift in how courts deal with oil and gas cases," says Tisdel.
This is good news for environmental advocates, tribal leaders and democratic lawmakers who oppose the BLM's most recent move to lease lands within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at Wild Earth Guardians, tells SFR that opponents submitted over 33,000 protests to the BLM office in Santa Fe within the designated 10-day comment period, and consider legal action the last resort to stopping the lease of lands around the National Park System site, which contains one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the United States and is considered sacred by Indigenous peoples throughout the Four Corners region.
Sobel and other advocates have voiced concerns over recent months that under the Trump administration, the BLM has systematically eliminated opportunities for public participation in issues regarding public lands. The agency has cut two 30-day comment periods required by 2010 oil and gas reforms to a single comment period of 10 days only, complicated submission guidelines, and has stopped accepting comments submitted online or via email in favor of written comments that must be delivered by mail or in person within the designated window.
Further, a BLM spokeswoman tells SFR that comments are only accepted within strict guidelines, and that many submissions, such as petitions signed by multiple individuals, will not be accepted. The total number of recognized protests will likely be far fewer than the number submitted.
"The public has voiced overwhelming opposition," says Sobel. "I can say right now that if the sale goes through, we will sue."
SFR asked the BLM to comment on the Chaco lease sale and the recent District Court ruling, but the agency has not yet responded.
Tisdel says Contreras' ruling increases New Mexico's chances of winning if a suit is filed. In the big picture, he says, the implications could have a global impact.
According to a report issued to the US Department of the Interior by the US Geological Survey in 2016, extraction of fossil fuels on federal lands and offshore drilling account for 25 percent of total US emissions. "The public has to address this," says Tisdel. "If we do not, then we simply will not be able to address or stop climate change."