Wyoming judge finds Biden's 'pause' on drilling legal

Oil well is seen at dawn near Dacono, Colorado
REUTERS/Rick Wilking
  • Government can delay leasing to consider environmental harms, judge said
  • Order rejected oil and gas industry claims of overreach

(Reuters) - A Wyoming federal judge's order Friday affirmed the government's prerogative to pause gas and oil lease sales to consider the environmental impacts of any subsequent drilling.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl said in a narrow ruling that a challenge launched by the state alongside oil and gas industry groups failed to show the U.S. Interior Department violated the Mineral Leasing Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when delaying leases in the state in 2021.

While the petitioners had described Biden's 2021 executive order pausing oil and gas leasing as an illegal and permanent prohibition, Skavdahl said the record showed Interior’s delays were intended to be temporary and to ensure the environmental impacts of the leasing had been thoroughly considered as required by law.

“Substantial evidence in record supports [the] decision to postpone the March 2021 lease sales over concerns that the associated environmental assessment did not satisfy recent federal court caselaw that had found similar EAs lacked sufficient NEPA analysis,” the judge said.

The decision contrasts with an opinion issued last month in Louisiana, where U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty said Interior had violated federal law when it effectively canceled onshore and offshore leasing on all federal lands following Biden's executive order. Doughty's order blocked the administration's ability to unilaterally “pause” oil and gas leasing in 13 states, though Wyoming was not on that list.

Both disputes predate the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last month, which requires some oil and gas leasing be offered if federal rights of way are offered for renewable energy projects.

The Friday decision was cheered by environmental groups that weighed in to support the Biden administration. Michael Freeman of Earthjustice, who represented several of those groups, said it underscores the administration’s ability to take environmental harms into account.

“Our hope is that moving forward the Biden administration won’t shy away from exercising that authority in limiting oil and gas leasing on order to protect the environment,” Freeman said.

Western Energy Alliance said it plans to appeal. An Interior spokesperson declined to comment. Wyoming didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

The case is Western Energy Alliance v. Biden, U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, case No. 2:21-cv-00013.

For the government: Michael Sawyer of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Nicholas Vassallo of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wyoming

For the industry groups: Alexander Obrecht, L. Poe Leggette and Mark Barron of BakerHostetler.

For Wyoming: James Kaste and Travis Jordan of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office

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