Groups challenge federal oil, gas leasing on climate grounds

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The federal government needs to consider greenhouse emissions and the potential contribution to climate change before allowing oil and gas development on public land, two environmental groups asserted Thursday in a lawsuit over drilling in Western states.

Industry advocates stood by their own efforts to keep federal leasing moving ahead.

The lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility in federal court in Washington, D.C., challenges 397 oil and gas leases the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued since early 2015 in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

Almost 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions trace back to publicly owned oil and gas reserves, an amount more than the total greenhouse emissions of Central America, the groups claim.

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The Interior Department in January announced a three-year moratorium on federal coal leasing in Wyoming and elsewhere to analyze whether the government is getting a fair return on those leases and the environmental effects of burning that coal to produce electricity.

WildEarth Guardians asked for similar action for the federal oil and gas leasing program but hasn’t heard back from the government, the lawsuit says.

“President Obama seems to get climate change, but he has an unexplainable blind spot when it comes to leasing public lands to oil and gas companies,” said Tim Ream, WildEarth Guardians climate and energy campaign director, in a release.

The lawsuit accuses the government of opening up public land in the three states to drilling without properly analyzing the “direct, indirect and cumulative” impacts to Earth’s climate.

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BLM spokeswoman Kimberly A. Brubeck declined to comment, citing agency policy not to comment on pending litigation, but said the BLM has been working for years to update and modernize its oil and gas drilling rules. Those efforts have not gone smoothly.

In June, a federal judge in Wyoming sided with Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and North Dakota and an American Indian tribe and rejected proposed BLM rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing, the practice of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to break open oil and gas deposits. The federal government has appealed.

Several groups have meanwhile joined in a “Keep it in the Ground” movement to end fossil-fuel extraction on public lands altogether. Doing so would wipe out or threaten 380,000 jobs, cost $11.3 billion in annual royalties and eliminate one-quarter of the nation’s fossil-fuel production, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a report released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group, has been pressuring the government to keep leasing. The group sued earlier this month to oppose the cancellation and postponement of leases and require the BLM to hold federal oil and gas lease sales four times a year as required by law.

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“WildEarth is trying to force the government to violate the law,” Alliance Vice President Kathleen Sgamma said in a statement. “It’s much easier to just file a frivolous lawsuit than it is to change the law through Congress.”