|For Immediate Release, September 24, 2018
BOISE, Idaho― Late last Friday, a federal judge halted implementation of a Trump administration policy that would sharply curtail public participation in oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands. The ruling applies to future oil and gas lease sales in greater sage grouse habitat, which covers 67 million acres in 11 Western states.
The preliminary injunction order, issued today by U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush, prohibits the Bureau of Land Management from enforcing the policy changes pending a final ruling by the court. Lease sales scheduled for December in greater sage grouse habitat, spanning hundreds of thousands of acres across the interior West, must now include 30-day public comment and administrative protest periods.
“The BLM was cutting the public out of oil and gas decision making, and we’re grateful to Judge Bush for restoring the public’s ability to have meaningful input,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
In January the BLM issued an “instruction memorandum” directing field offices to accelerate oil and gas leasing on public lands, in part by curtailing environmental review and eliminating mandatory public comment periods. The motion for preliminary injunction, filed by Advocates for the West on behalf of Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the policy as an unlawful attempt to eliminate public involvement in BLM leasing decisions.
“This ruling is good news for public lands and the millions of people who love them,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump administration is trying every trick in the book to make it easier for the fossil fuel industry to plunder public lands for private profit. Thankfully we have a judicial system to uphold bedrock environmental laws and ensure the public’s voice is heard.”
In his ruling, the judge said there was significant evidence that the BLM was intentionally shutting the public out. “The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands,” Bush said.
The court’s order will affect public land lease sales currently scheduled for December in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.
“This decision sends a strong message to BLM that it cannot lawfully suppress public input to fast-track oil and gas development,” said Sarah Stellberg, an attorney with Advocates for the West. “Public participation and reasoned government decisionmaking are guaranteed by law, and the comment periods restored by this order will help ensure that non-industry stakeholders have a real voice in how our public lands are managed.”
The preliminary injunction request is part of a broader lawsuit challenging BLM’s federal oil and gas leasing practices across five western states and covering almost 2 million acres of key greater sage grouse habitat. The iconic and imperiled western bird has lost almost half of its habitat since Euro-American settlement. The groups filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in July.
Despite increasing concerns about wildlife habitat, climate change and water quality impacts, about 90 percent of federal public lands in the West are available for oil and gas leasing.