The 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals today rejected a challenge by the energy industry attempting to force the Secretary of the Interior to issue oil and gas leases on public lands in Utah and Wyoming. The Interior Department declined to issue the leases after it found that that its Bureau of Land Management had not fully complied with laws and policies designed to protect sensitive resources like sage grouse and wilderness values.
Specifically, the court ruled that the appeal was premature in view of pending decisions before the Interior Department’s own review board. The suit originally involved bids on 118 leases in Wyoming and Utah. Only eight oil and gas leases in Wyoming remain in contention. The Department issued some of the contested leases after further review, but determined others required additional environmental assessment or protective measures.
The decision let stand a June 2011 U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming ruling in favor of the Interior Department. That ruling upheld Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s decision to consider impacts to land, water quality, air quality and wildlife as part of the decision making process about the level of energy development on public lands.
“This is a victory for Wyoming and Utah’s beautiful public lands,” said Melanie Kay, Earthjustice attorney for the conservation groups who intervened in the case to defend the Secretary’s decision. “The district court recognized that the Interior Department, not the energy industry, holds the reins when it comes to deciding whether and how much to drill on public lands. Where the lands are scenic wonders with ecological value, the Secretary has the full authority to just say no.”
“The oil and gas industry sued to try to force the BLM to sign over oil and gas leases to some of our most sensitive natural lands like potential wilderness in Adobe Town, sage grouse Core Areas, and big game crucial winter ranges before formal citizen protests had been dealt with,” said Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “But the court ruled against them, because they didn’t wait until a final agency decision was made before going to court. The new leasing reforms put in place under the Obama administration not only require the federal government to take a hard look at impacts to lands that might be leased, but also require all protests to be resolved before the auction, so these kinds of delays don’t happen anymore.”
“This ruling maintains the opportunity for public engagement on the use of our cherished public lands,” said Brian Rutledge of the National Audubon Society.
In January 2011, conservation groups including Wyoming Outdoor Council, National Wildlife Federation, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, Center for Native Ecosystems, and National Audubon Society “intervened” on behalf of the Department of the Interior to oppose an oil and gas industry lawsuit demanding that the federal government immediately issue 118 protested oil and gas leases on sensitive public lands in Utah and Wyoming.
The industry suit sought to overturn Interior Department decisions declining to issue oil and gas leases because the leases threatened wilderness-caliber lands and important habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife. Although BLM auctioned the leases subject to further review, industry sought to change the rules of the game after-the-fact and force BLM to issue the leases despite the damage they would cause.
In June 2011, U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal rejected industry’s claims, ruling that BLM has the flexibility to make the decision of whether or not to lease, as long as it does so within 60 days of a leasing auction. “[T]his Court will not prevent the Secretary from protecting both the public lands, as well as the integrity of the government’s public land mineral leasing program.” The court confirmed that until BLM makes a final decision about whether to lease, the high bidder at an auction has nothing more than a “hope, or expectation, rather than any vested right.”
The leases at issue threatened thousands of acres in the roadless San Rafael Desert in Utah, known for its scenic sandstone formations and expansive panoramas, and home to a treasure trove of fragile archeological resources, Native American rock art, ruins, and artifacts. Industry development of the leases in question would also have fragmented critical wildlife habitat, including the "Greater Little Mountain" area south of Rock Springs, Wyoming, one of the most popular elk and deer hunting destinations in the state.
At the time this appeal began, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had already issued thousands of leases for energy development in the states with contested leases, including nearly 17,000 leases in Wyoming and more than 4,100 leases in Utah. The oil and gas industry had only developed 33 percent of its leases in Wyoming and 22 percent of its leases in Utah, leaving millions of acres open to energy development where the Interior Department has already issued leases.