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Trump 'Efforts to Serve Corporate Polluters' Dealt Blow as Judge Vacates Oil and Gas Lease Sales on Nearly 1 Million Acres

"The judge confirmed that it's illegal to silence the public to expand fossil-fuel extraction."

The greater sage grouse

The greater sage grouse, whom environmental lawyer Michael Saul dubbed "an unintentional climate activist." (Photo: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS)

Environmental advocates cheered a federal judge's ruling Thursday that voided oil and gas leases on roughly one million acres of public lands and rejected a Trump administration policy that accelerated extraction of the fossil fuels.

"The judge confirmed that it's illegal to silence the public to expand fossil-fuel extraction," said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The lawsuit centered on a 2018 memoradum, "No. 2018-034," issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the Interior Department. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil and gas lobbyist.

Also key was that the areas in question are habitat for the greater sage grouse, whose numbers are in decline. 

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush said BLM was "arbitrary and capricious" in issuing the new policy, and said the agency clearly sought to mute public input.

The "BLM jettisoned prior processes, practices, and norms in favor of changes that emphasized economic maximization—to the detriment, if not outright exclusion, of pre-decisional opportunities for the public to contribute to the decision-making process affecting the management of public lands," he wrote.

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"The agency's administrative record," Bush continued, "reveals no analysis that would explain or justify the transition" from the Obama-era policy to the new one "and the resulting curtailment of the public's involvement in oil and gas leasing decisions on public land."

The administration's shift appears to be "a mechanism for unharnessing prior constraints upon oil and gas leasing by specifically reducing or eliminating public involvement in the oil and gas leasing process because such public involvement hindered the oil and gas production industry," he added.

Bush ordered the reinstatement of the Obama standards requiring a 30-day comment period and vacated five leases in Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.

Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project, which joined the Center for Biological Diversity in the legal challege, celebrated the ruling.

"This administration has been relentless in its efforts to cut the public out of public lands decision-making, starting in 2018," said Brooks. "The court wasn't fooled by the agency's efforts to disguise its intention to provide greater influence to extractive energies, and the sage grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species will benefit from today's win."

McKinnon also applauded the positive impact the ruling will have on wildlife and plants and called it "a win for millions of acres of our beautiful public lands and a major blow to the Trump administration's corrupt efforts to serve corporate polluters."

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