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Federal judge demands Trump administration reveal how its drilling plans will fuel climate change

The ruling temporarily blocks drilling on 300,000 acres of leases in Wyoming.

Scientists say that as global warming nears an irreversible level, the president has been promoting business growth, not climate fixes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

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 could force the Trump administration to account for the full climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda, and it could signal trouble for the president’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country. Contreras concluded that the Interior Department’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 under President Barack Obama in 2015 and 2016. The judge temporarily blocked drilling on about 300,000 acres of land in the state.

The initial ruling in the case, brought by the 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 — an Obama appointee — faulted the agency’s environmental assessments as inadequate because they did not detail how individual drilling projects contribute 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.

Asked about the decision Wednesday, Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email, “We do not comment on ongoing litigation."

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R) criticized the ruling in a statement, and suggested that the state might appeal it.

“We will be exploring options and following up with our state, federal, and industry partners,” Gordon said. “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.”

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

The Trump administration released on Nov. 23 a long-awaited report outlining that climate change impacts "are intensifying across the country." (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

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 that 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 take steps to try to block federal oil and gas lease auctions scheduled in the coming week, which encompass an additional 511,000 acres of western land.

Why the Trump administration keeps losing in court, especially on the environment

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

Last month, a U.S. magistrate judge in Montana ordered the agency to redo its environmental impact analysis of mine expansion on federal land there to reflect factors including the climate impacts of moving the coal by rail and the economic impact of climate change spurred by the burning of coal mined on site.

University of Chicago clinical law professor Mark Templeton, who filed an amicus brief in the case involving Montana’s Spring Creek Coal mine, said federal law imposes these procedural requirements to give the public and federal officials a better sense of what’s at stake in these decisions.

“We all know climate change is bad, in broad scale and scope,” he said, adding that when it comes to Tuesday’s case, “What this ruling shows is individuals in government are making decisions that contribute to climate change, and therefore they need to be considering those effects when they’re making those decisions.”

Even if Contreras’s decision stands, however, it may not block the administration’s energy agenda. Although BLM would be required to disclose the overall climate impact of its leasing decisions, it could 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, administration officials jettisoned those plans when President Trump took office.

The agency lifted Obama’s moratorium on federal coal leasing. The White House also slashed the projected economic damage that stems from burning fossil fuels from about $50 per ton under Obama to between $1 and $7 per ton. The numbers are based on cost-benefit analyses for rules affecting methane leaks from oil and gas operations on public land, as well as pollution from coal-fired power plants. Trump officials reached a lower estimate by excluding climate effects outside the United States and by putting a reduced emphasis on how global warming will affect future generations.

The Trump administration is working to overhaul a 2016 policy that requires federal agencies to assess the global climate impact of their actions.

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 United States continued on its current path, the globe could warm by 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. It suggested that this trend illustrated why curbing carbon emissions would make little difference to the planet.

Even though Tuesday’s 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."

Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.