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Federal judge: Wyo. leases cannot be drilled until climate change is considered

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will not be able to issue a permit to drill on about 300,000 acres of land it leased to oil and gas companies in Wyoming, a federal judge ruled March 19.

WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility brought the case, asserting that the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, did not sufficiently consider climate change when authorizing oil and gas leasing on federal land in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

The BLM prepared, under the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, an environmental assessment and issued a finding of no significant impact that exempted the agency from filing an environmental impact statement before authorizing the land leases.

As such, the environmental groups asserted that the bureau failed to sufficiently account for the greenhouse gas emissions that would be generated by oil and gas development on the leased parcels.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Rudolph Contreras decided the case, finding that the federal agency failed to take a "hard look" at greenhouse gas emissions from the Wyoming lease sales, and therefore the environmental assessments and findings of significant impacts issued for those sales did not comply with NEPA.

"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," the judge wrote.

Contreras remanded the nine environmental assessments and findings of no significant impact associated with the Wyoming lease sales to the BLM and said the bureau cannot issue a permit to drill or otherwise authorize new oil and gas drilling on the Wyoming leases until it has met its obligations under NEPA.

The court did not vacate the Wyoming leases, however, citing "the serious possibility that BLM may be able to substantiate the conclusions drawn in its [environmental assessments and findings of no significant impact]."

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will retain jurisdiction over the matter until those obligations are satisfied.