Throughout his tenure as Interior Department secretary, Ryan Zinke has tried to prime the pump for oil and gas leasing on public lands. Under his leadership, and in pursuit of the Trump administration’s “American Energy Dominance” directive, the Bureau of Land Management has increased the area offered for oil and gas leases and relaxed regulations for natural gas producers on public lands.
But the BLM recently hit a snag in its push to lease more land for oil and gas production. In late September, a federal district court in Idaho issued a preliminary injunction stating that the Interior Department must hold off on energy leasing in sage grouse habitat to allow for more public participation. Because of the decision, oil and gas lease sales totaling more than 1 million acres and spanning six states have been delayed.
The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, arguing that policies the BLM put in place in January unlawfully restrict public comment on oil and gas leases. The old guidelines called for 30-day comment and protest periods; under the new rules, individual BLM offices could do away with the initial public comment period entirely and limit the protest period to 10 days.
In his decision stating that the new policies are inadequate, Idaho Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush found the agency had purposefully circumvented public participation. “The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands,” he wrote.
Bush’s ruling was an initial judgment, which temporarily halted lease sales pending the court’s final decision. While the ruling was limited to critical habitat for sage grouse, the final judgment could overrule the BLM’s new public participation policies entirely, said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney for Advocates for the West, the nonprofit environmental law firm that tried the case. And the judge may go even further. “It is possible leases issued under the policy could be vacated,” Stellberg said. Even if such a sweeping judgment doesn’t happen, leases sold earlier this year could be challenged in separate lawsuits if the court rules that they went forward under unlawful policies.
The September court decision was one of several recent federal rulings against Zinke’s Interior Department. Courts have pushed back on Fish and Wildlife decisions regarding endangered species protections for Pacific fishers and Yellowstone’s bison and grizzly bears. And earlier this summer, a court in New Mexico ordered the BLM to consider climate change during environmental reviews.
As conservationists and the Interior Department await a final ruling in the sage grouse case, federal officials are preparing significantly smaller lease sales. In Wyoming, where the majority of the affected parcels are located, only 720 acres are still set to be auctioned in December, an area dwarfed by the more than 750,000 acres of Wyoming leases delayed by the temporary injunction.
But those parcels haven’t escaped the auction block altogether. They are now scheduled to be leased in February, following a longer period for public comment and protest. How that expanded public input will impact any future push by the Interior Department to open more acres to oil and gas leasing is an open question.