Federal judge casts doubt on Trump’s drilling plans because they ignore climate change

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House, Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Washington, for a trip to visit an Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and a fundraising event in Canton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(Jenny Starrs | The Washington Post) Scientists say global warming nears an irreversible level, President Trump has been promoting business growth instead of climate change.

Washington • 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 marks the first time the Trump administration has been held to account for the climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda, and it could have sweeping implications for the president’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country. Contreras concluded that Interior’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 in 2015 and 2016. The judge temporarily blocked drilling on roughly 300,000 acres of land in the state.

The initial ruling in the case brought by two 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 - a Barack Obama appointee - faulted the agency's environmental assessments as inadequate because it did not detail how individual drilling projects contributed 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.

"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," he wrote.

Contreras did not void the leases outright, but instead ordered BLM to redo its analysis of hundreds of projects in Wyoming.

Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma, whose group is one of the defendants in the case, said in a phone interview that she was confident the ruling could be overturned on appeal. She noted that the Obama and Trump administrations had conducted similar climate analyses in their leasing documents, and that it was impossible to predict the cumulative impact of these auctions because just under half of all federal land leased for drilling is eventually developed.

"This judge has ignored decades of legal precedent in this ruling," she said. "The judge is basically asking BLM to take a wild guess on how many wells will be developed on leases, prematurely."

Jeremy Nichols, who directs WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program, said in a phone interview that the decision would force the administration to reveal how its policies are helping to fuel climate change. He said his group would now take steps to try to block federal oil and gas lease auctions scheduled for next week, which encompass 560,000 acres of western land.

"It calls into question the legality of the Trump administration's entire oil and gas program, Nichols said. "This forces them to pull their head out of the sand and look at the bigger picture."

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 Interior's U.S. Geological Survey. Oil and gas drilling accounts for about 40 percent, or 500 million metric tons, of that total.

Evenif Contreras's decision stands, however, it may not block the administration's energy agenda altogether. While BLM would be required to disclose the overall climate impact of its leasing decisions, it could potentially still go ahead and open those lands up for development.

While the Interior Department began to take into account the climate impacts of federal oil, gas and coal leasing toward the end of Obama's second term, Trump administration officials jettisoned those plans right after President Donald Trump took office. Interior lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing in 2017, and is working to overhaul a 2016 guidance that requires federal agencies to assess the global climate impact of their policies.

Trump and several of his top deputies have dismissed recent federal findings that the United States and other countries must curb their carbon output in the next decade or face potentially disastrous consequences from climate change. In a draft analysis last year of its plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that if the U.S. continued on its current path the globe could warm by 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and suggested that this trend illustrated why curbing carbon emissions would make little difference to the planet.

Interior officials did not immediately comment Wednesday.

Even though the new ruling eventually could be overturned, proponents of oil and gas drilling cautioned that it could still have a chilling effect on development out West.

"Any time there's a ruling that sows more uncertainty on federal land, that has a ripple effect not just on these leases in question, but throughout the entire federal onshore system," Sgamma said.

And Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, “This bad decision will hurt workers in Wyoming, reduce revenue for the state and slow America’s energy production.”

The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis contributed to this report.