Written by Chloe Marie - Research Fellow
This article provides an overview of recent legal developments relating to oil and gas development on public lands in the United States. This article and a subsequent one scheduled for publication on August 31, 2018, will look at select cases addressing this issue.
WildEarth Guardians et al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Great Falls Division (Docket No. 4:18-cv-00073)
On May 15, 2018, WildEarth Guardians, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and some Montana residents filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) challenging oil and gas lease sales that occurred on public lands in Montana. Plaintiffs claimed that BLM failed in conducting proper environmental assessments (EA) during oil and gas lease sales that occurred in December 2017 and March 2018, thus violating NEPA. Therefore, plaintiffs asked the court to void any oil and gas lease issued at that time. Plaintiffs argue that BLM’s EA analysis did not consider the adverse and cumulative impacts of oil and gas developments on public lands in Montana on water quality, air quality, and climate change.
This case remains pending.
Western Watersheds Project et al. v. Zinke et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, (Docket No. 1:18-cv-00187)
On April 30, 2018, Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity brought legal action against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) challenging oil and gas leasing and development on specific federal lands that are alleged to be critical habitat for the Greater Sage-Grouse. The two environmental groups argue that BLM did not consider sufficiently the harmful impacts of oil and gas development to the Greater Sage-Grouse’s life and habitat. Thus, they are seeking judicial review of the pending Normally Pressure Lance (NPL) Natural Gas Project, Instruction Memorandums (IMs) No. 2018-026 and No. 2018-034, and eight prior oil and gas lease sales.
The NPL project entails the drilling of 3,500 new wells within critical sage-grouse habitat and corridors connectivity and has previously been the subject of a complaint dated November 2012 (Western Watersheds Project v. Salazar, U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, docket 1:08-cv-516).
Plaintiffs argue that the Instruction Memorandum No. 2018-2016, issued in December 2017 is contrary to the “explicit intent and language” of the 2015 Greater Sage-Grouse Plan and Amendments developed during the Obama administration. According to the Instruction Memorandum, while BLM will continue to prioritize leasing outside of the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, applications for a lease outside of the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat management areas do not need to be considered before those within it. As for Instruction Memorandum No. 2018-034 released in January 2018, the complaint claims that it “has substantially altered how BLM processes and approves oil and gas leases on public lands, and directly affects the rights of Plaintiffs and members of the public to have notice, opportunity to comment, and petition the agency for relief.”
On May 29, 2018, BLM filed a motion to sever and transfer plaintiffs’ claims to the District Courts for the Districts of Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, alleging that “none of these claims relate to lands or activities in Idaho.” A decision on this motion has not yet been rendered by the U.S. District Court.
On July 6, 2018, plaintiffs petitioned the U.S. District Court to preliminary enjoin BLM from enforcing provisions of the Instruction Memorandum No. 2018-034 until the matter is adjudicated on the merits. In the meantime, plaintiffs asked that procedures in the prior Instruction Memorandum 2010-117 be implemented.
This case remains pending.
Northern Alaska Environmental Center et al. v. U.S. Department of the Interior et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska (Docket No. 3:18-cv-00030)
On February 2, 2018, the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and three other environmental groups brought legal action against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) challenging the lack of environmental analysis for the 2017 leasing sale of 10.3 million acres of public lands located in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. According to plaintiffs, the oil and gas lease sales should be considered illegal owing to the fact that BLM did not prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) providing for a thorough analysis of the potential effects of oil and gas development in the Reserve. Plaintiffs seek the annulment of the 2017 lease sale as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.
On June 4, 2018, plaintiffs petitioned the court to grant summary judgment in their favor alleging that “BLM’s decision to hold the 2017 lease sale without first complying with its obligations under NEPA and the Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act and its regulations was arbitrary and contrary to law.” Oral arguments on the motion for summary judgment are scheduled to be heard on September 21, 2018.
This case remains pending.
Natural Resources Defense Council et al. v. Zinke et al., in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska (Docket No. 3:18-cv-00031)
On February 2, 2018, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace Inc., and Friends of the Earth filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging BLM’s oil and gas lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that occurred in 2016 and 2017.
Plaintiffs criticize BLM for basing its decision to lease portions of the Reserve solely on the 2013 Integrated Activity Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (Plan EIS). They claim that BLM should have prepared new or additional environmental analysis. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that “the agency purported to support its leasing decisions with documents called Determinations of NEPA Adequacy that relied entirely on the Plan EIS to fulfill its NEPA obligations and determined that no additional analysis of alternatives or impacts was necessary at this next lease sale stage.”
Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment on June 4, 2018, requesting that the court vacate the 2016 and 2017 lease sales and enjoin all activities associated with the oil and gas leases until the matter is resolved. In the alternative of vacating the lease sales, plaintiffs asks that BLM comply with NEPA procedures. An oral argument hearing on the motion for summary judgment is scheduled on September 21, 2018.