By Reese Collins
In March 2019, a U.S. judge blocked oil and gas drilling across more than 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming after he ruled that the Trump administration had violated environmental law. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the Department of the Interior did not account for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in the leasing oil and gas in the western U.S. This decision is the first significant check on the Trump administration’s “energy-first” agenda and challenges President Trump’s plans to boost fossil fuel production across the country.
Trump has pushed for “energy dominance” by opening up federal lands to energy companies and cutting environmental regulations on fossil fuel development. The administration has taken the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, an international agreement to cut emissions and combat climate change and has also accessed previously-untouched oil and gas reserves in Alaska via a repeal of the Clean Power Plan and Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. While the shale oil and natural gas boom predates the Trump administration, the U.S.’s production has surpassed that of Saudi Arabia and Russia partially as a result of new oil exploration on state and private lands allowed by President Trump.
Contreras’s ruling could force the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to account for the full climate impact of these decisions. Contreras concluded that the BLM “did not sufficiently consider climate change” when deciding to auction off federal land in Wyoming to oil and gas drilling under President Barack Obama in 2015 and 2016. The rulings, historically, have been held up.
The case was originally brought by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility. In Contreras’s ruling, he stated that the agency “did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing,” and that the agency “must consider the cumulative impact of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions” generated by BLM leases made across the country. Contreras also faulted the agency’s environmental assessments as inadequate because they did not explain how individual drilling projects contribute to the U.S.’s overall carbon output, therefore not providing the public and policymakers with a sufficient understanding of the project’s impact.
Contreras did not void the leases in Wyoming but ordered BLM to redo its analysis of the projects. Republican Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon criticized the ruling and suggested that the state might appeal it, saying: “Our country’s efforts to reduce carbon should not center on the livelihoods of those committed workers and industries who seek to provide reliable and affordable energy, especially when we don’t look to the detrimental effects of other expansive industries.” However, ignoring the impacts new exploration and production has on global oil consumption is no longer an option for the world’s developed nations like the U.S. The Western Energy Alliance was also a defendant in the case, and its president, Kathleen Sgamma, believes that the ruling could be overturned on appeal due to legal precedent on similar conflicts that have been ignored for decades
If Contreras’s decision remains, it still may not block the administration’s energy agenda. The Trump administration, through the elimination of environmental regulation and review, is working to eliminate a 2016 policy that requires federal agencies to assess the global climate impact of their decisions. Director of WildEarth, Guardians’ climate and energy program, Jeremy Nichols believes that said policy may force the administration to reveal how its policy regression is fueling climate change; however, Nichols also stated that “it calls into question the legality of the Trump administration’s entire oil and gas program,” and may force a reconsideration of the entire agenda. Nichols and the WildEarth Guardians, along with numerous other environmental organizations and states are prepared to continue litigation to block drilling on thousands of acres of U.S. land.
“CEQ Releases Final Guidance on Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration.
Eilperin, Juliet. “Federal Judge Demands Trump Administration Reveal How Its Drilling Plans Will Fuel Climate Change.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Mar. 2019.
Pearce, Tim. “Here Are Trump’s Largest ‘Energy Dominance’ Actions of 2018.” The Daily Signal, The Daily Signal, 2 Jan. 2019.
Press, Associated. “Citing Climate Change, U.S. Judge Blocks Oil and Gas Drilling in Wyoming.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 20 Mar. 2019.
Randall, Cassidy. “US Judge Halts Hundreds of Drilling Projects in Groundbreaking Climate Change Ruling.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Mar. 2019.