By Juliet Eilperin
A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of Washington could force the Trump administration to account for the full climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda, and it could signal trouble for the president’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country. Contreras concluded that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management “did not sufficiently consider climate change” when making decisions to auction off federal land in Wyoming to oil and gas drilling under President Barack Obama in 2015 and 2016. The judge temporarily blocked drilling on about 300,000 acres of land in the state.
The initial ruling in the case, brought by the advocacy groups WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, has implications for oil and gas drilling on federal land throughout the West. In the decision, Contreras — an Obama appointee — faulted the agency’s environmental assessments as inadequate because they did not detail how individual drilling projects contribute to the nation’s overall carbon output. Since greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, the judge wrote, these analyses did not provide policymakers and the public with a sufficient understanding of drilling’s impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Federal oil, gas and coal leasing — both on land and offshore — accounts for a quarter of America’s total carbon output, according to a report issued last year by the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey. Oil and gas drilling accounts for about 40 percent, or 500 million metric tons, of that total.
Last month, a U.S. magistrate judge in Montana ordered the agency to redo its environmental impact analysis of mine expansion on federal land there to reflect factors including the climate impacts of moving the coal by rail and the economic impact of climate change spurred by the burning of coal mined on site.
University of Chicago clinical law professor Mark Templeton, who filed an amicus brief in the case involving Montana’s Spring Creek Coal mine, said federal law imposes these procedural requirements to give the public and federal officials a better sense of what’s at stake in these decisions.
“We all know climate change is bad, in broad scale and scope,” he said, adding that when it comes to Tuesday’s case, “What this ruling shows is individuals in government are making decisions that contribute to climate change, and therefore they need to be considering those effects when they’re making those decisions.”
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