A federal judge this week ordered the Trump administration to redo environmental reviews of oil and gas leases on several hundred thousand acres of federal lands in Wyoming that were approved by the Obama administration in 2015-16, agreeing with environmental groups that the Bureau of Land Management failed to properly estimate the leases’ impacts on climate change. The judge also blocked approvals of drilling permits on those lands until the new studies are done, a move that could at least slow the Trump administration’s wrongheaded efforts to increase oil and gas production on federal lands at a time when the nation and the world face devastating effects from burning too much of those fuels for far too long.
The court decision covers only the Wyoming leases sold in 2015-16, but its significance is much broader. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the government failed to properly assess the broad effects of greenhouse gas emissions when it auctioned off the leases. The government had acknowledged that wells would emit greenhouse gases, but argued that it couldn’t quantify the amount at the time it auctioned the leases because it couldn’t know exactly where on the leased territory wells might ultimately be drilled, or how many. But Contreras ruled that the government had enough data from decades of previous leases to make an educated guess.
The judge also ruled that the BLM must consider the leases’ impact on climate change more broadly, not just in the area around the wells. The decision won’t stop the Trump administration from auctioning more oil and gas leases, but it will probably slow it down. It also could help opponents challenge recently awarded leases in court because, advocates argue, the current administration has been even less stringent than was the Obama administration.
This is not just a run-of-the-mill tussle between industry and environmentalists over arcane issues. If humankind is going to confront the unfolding global crisis of climate change in any meaningful way, it cannot keep expanding the amount of fossil fuel it produces and consumes. And we can’t keep approving projects without properly understanding the effects they will have on global warming.
One of the easiest and most obvious ways to counter the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere is to stop adding to it. It’s true that this one judge’s decision won’t necessarily stop more oil and gas leases on federal land. But it will help make sure the scope of the damage from such projects is better accounted for.