Greens say vacate 3,500 drilling permits in new climate change lawsuit

Drilling rigs operate in the Permian Basin oil and natural gas production area in Lea County
Drilling rigs operate in the Permian Basin oil and natural gas production area in Lea County, New Mexico. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
  • ‘Every new well’ pushes Alaskan polar bears, Hawaiian songbirds toward extinction, plaintiffs say
  • Complaint accuses Bureau of Land Management of violating federal law by ignoring ‘cumulative, nationwide’ effects

The Biden administration must vacate thousands of permits it has issued to drill for oil and gas on federal lands and stop issuing any more until it considers the cumulative, nationwide effect of increased greenhouse gas emissions from new wells, two environmental groups said in a new lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, accuse the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management of violating three federal laws and two executive orders by approving more than 3,500 permits in New Mexico and Wyoming after a “cursory” review of local impacts.

“At no point during the entire history of the oil and gas program has BLM considered the nationwide impacts of its fossil fuel program on the environment,” even though drilling and operating the wells produces greenhouse gases that harm coral reefs and songbirds in Hawaii, ice seals and polar bears in Alaska, and some 150 species across the country “for which climate change is a primary driver of their decline,” the complaint, filed Wednesday, says.

“Every new well takes polar bears and many other species one step closer to extinction,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, added Wednesday in a statement about the lawsuit.

The Interior Department declined to comment on Wednesday. But Mallori Miller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, defended the BLM’s environmental review process, saying it “takes years to complete” before a permit is issued and production can begin.

“To allege that over 3,500 (drilling permits) were approved without a close eye on impacts is ludicrous,” Miller said in an email.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., says BLM has acknowledged that drilling on federal lands contributes about 8% of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, but does not consider the effect of those emissions on endangered plants or animals.

Instead, it adheres to an opinion issued in 2008 by then-Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt, who concluded – based on “the scope of existing science” – that the “requisite causal connections cannot be made between the emissions of GHGs from a proposed agency action and specific localized climate change as it impacts listed species or critical habitat.”

The complaint says adhering to Bernhardt's opinion in 2022 violates the Endangered Species Act because “climate science and research on the impacts of climate change has evolved and developed significantly.”

Candidate Joe Biden promised "no more drilling on federal lands, period, period, period" in 2020 and his administration greatly scaled back the land available for new leases after his attempt at an outright moratorium was blocked in court.

However, the number of drilling permits issued to existing lease-holders in his first year as president remained high. Biden has also responded to criticism of rising gas prices by saying the oil and gas industry hasn’t utilized about 9,000 permits it already holds.

The case filed Wednesday is Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians v. Department of Interior et al., U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 22-01716.

For the plaintiffs: Kyle Tisdel, Western Environmental Law Center; Jason Rylander, Center for Biological Diversity; and Daniel Timmons, WildEarth Guardians

For the government: No counsel listed

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