Federal ruling on oil and gas drilling in Wyoming gives new avenue to challenge BLM leases in Utah

(Kim Raff | Tribune file photo) A super single oil rig that is drilling for oil in Newfield Exploration Company's oil fields in Monument Butte near Roosevelt, Utah, on August 9, 2012.

Washington • A federal judge’s ruling to halt new oil and gas leases and review hundreds of others in Wyoming doesn’t directly affect Utah but could lead to new legal challenges to leases in the state.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled Wednesday that the Bureau of Land Management should consider how emissions from oil and gas leases affect climate change.

“Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change," Contreras wrote, “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.”

His order impacts almost 500 square miles in Wyoming but didn’t address concerns brought by plaintiffs about leases in Utah and Colorado. The ruling prevents the BLM from issuing any new permits until the agency conducts a new environmental review to see how greenhouse gas emissions from leases affect the environment.

While the leases in Utah weren’t covered by the ruling, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) says that Contreras’ judgment opens an avenue to challenge leases issued in Utah.

The plaintiffs in the case, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, have amended their complaint to include Utah leases since 2017. They comprise about 532 parcels covering more than 777,000 acres in the state.

“This ruling highlights a significant and, we believe, fatal flaw in every oil and gas lease sale held by BLM in Utah throughout the [President Donald] Trump administration,” said Stephen Bloch, SUWA’s legal director.

“Over the past two years, BLM has been hard at work implementing the administration’s outlandish ‘energy dominance’ agenda with the result being that hundreds of new leases have been sold in Utah’s wildest and most culturally significant landscapes; places like southeast Utah’s Four Corners region, San Rafael Desert, and Book Cliffs have been blanketed with oil and gas leases,” Bloch added. “Fortunately, Judge Contreras’ decision gives us a powerful tool to undo this mischief.”

A large-scale oil and gas lease auction is set for next week in Utah.

Contreras, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., kept the lawsuit in his court and said he wanted to see the BLM do a thorough review and not just file papers saying it has.

BLM spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt said the agency was still reviewing the ruling and “determining a path forward regarding the implications.”

The plaintiffs said the ruling would have implications beyond Wyoming.

“This is the Holy Grail ruling we’ve been after, especially with oil and gas,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate program director. “It calls into question the legality of oil and gas leasing that’s happening everywhere.”

The oil and gas industry pushed back, arguing that the BLM already analyzes climate change impacts.

“The judge is asking BLM to take a wild guess at how many wells would be developed on these leases,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, suggested the state might appeal the ruling.

“We will be exploring options and following up with our state, federal, and industry partners,” Gordon said, according to The Washington Post. “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. Bringing our country to its knees is not the way to thwart climate change.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.