Wyoming Joins Lawsuits Defending Oil and Gas Lease Sales

Gov. Mark Gordon said the state is working to “protect the oil and gas industry” by opposing environmental groups’ request to void the sales

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Sep 01, 2022

Wyoming seeks to join a lawsuit defending the sale of oil and gas leases on federal lands across the state. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management)

By Jacob Gardenswartz

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Under the direction of Gov. Mark Gordon, Wyoming has joined two lawsuits defending the legality of the sale of oil and gas leases spanning nearly 120,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming, the latest move in a complex legal and political saga hanging over one of the largest industries in the state.

The move to intervene in the cases, which was approved by a federal judge Thursday morning, aligns Wyoming with the Biden administration’s position that the sales should go through.

The cases concern the June lease sale of roughly 170 parcels of federal land across the Western U.S., including 122 parcels, or approximately 119,565 acres, in Wyoming, which sold for over $13 million according to the Bureau of Land Management. Shortly after those sales were announced, a coalition of environmental groups filed two separate lawsuits arguing that the sales ran afoul of several federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, by not adequately addressing the impact of new oil and gas drilling on the environment.

The lease sales were conducted “without evaluating the resulting impacts to groundwater or wildlife, and without grappling with the greenhouse gas pollution caused by oil and gas development on those leases,” plaintiffs argued in one lawsuit. Further oil and gas development “would likely push global climate change to catastrophic levels with incalculable consequences for the American people, the rest of humanity, and the global environment,” a similar coalition of environmental groups argued in a second suit.

Representatives for the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

In a statement announcing the state’s legal actions seeking to intervene in the cases, Gordon said it’s “sad that every lease sale now leads to a challenge,” decrying the National Environmental Policy Act as “little more than a meal ticket for litigious special interest groups.”

But Melissa Hornbein, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represents one of the plaintiffs that sued over the land sales, took issue with that characterization.

“The climate science is clear that not only is there no room in the remaining global carbon budget for new federal oil and gas development, the lands already committed to such development cannot be fully developed consistent with an approach that keeps warming below 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius,” Hornbein said in an email to the Wyoming Truth. “It is imperative to our clients that the government not only acknowledge this scientific fact before opening new lands to leasing, but also that it make that reality clear to the public before it does so.”

The lease sales — which beyond Wyoming also involve federal lands in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah — mark the first of their kind since the Biden administration temporarily froze new oil and gas lease sales shortly after Biden took office. In a Jan. 27, 2021, executive order, the president pledged to “pause” all such sales until his administration could review their environmental impact.

But a federal judge soon blocked enforcement of that policy after a coalition of Republican-led states sued. Despite multiple stops-and-starts during the appeals process, a federal judge again permanently blocked the pause on oil and gas lease sales earlier this month. Amid all this, the Biden administration resumed oil and gas lease sales in April.

Also complicating matters are provisions in the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act which tie new renewable energy development to the continuation of oil and gas lease sales, a compromise negotiated to earn the support of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) for the legislation. It remains unclear how those provisions may impact the lawsuits in Wyoming.

Gordon, for his part, argued that Wyoming has a “legally protected economic interest” in these cases, and stands to realize over $6 million in revenue assuming the sales go through. Whether the environmental groups have done enough to block the sale now rests in the hands of  U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper.

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