More than a dozen groups intervened in a case in Wyoming on Wednesday to defend the Biden administration's decision to postpone the sale of oil and gas leases in the state, arguing that numerous court ruling and settled laws have affirmed the U.S. Interior Department is free to determine when such sales will go forward—or whether they will at all.
The legal groups Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center are representing 17 national and local groups in the case, in which the state of Wyoming and two industry trade groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in December over its postponement of sales that had been planned for 2021 and 2022.
The BLM currently has several sales scheduled for 2023, covering nearly half a million acres, but as Friends of the Earth (FOE) said in a press statement Wednesday, the groups "want the court to order the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the BLM to hold lease sales every three months across the West"—despite warnings from energy experts and scientists that fossil fuel extraction must be phased out in order to avoid the worst effects of the climate emergency.
"Today's filing demonstrates that we refuse to sit back and allow Big Oil to push for policies that perpetuate dirty energy," said Hallie Templeton, legal director for FOE. "The law is crystal clear: the federal government holds broad authority over whether, when, and how to lease public lands for oil and gas development. The energy sector should be looking to the future of justly sourced renewable energy, not pushing outdated technology that exploits people and the planet."
FOE is joined by groups including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Citizens for a Health Community, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils in defending the Biden administration's decision.
A U.S. District Court ruling in Wyoming in September 2022 affirmed that the administration can postpone the sales, and the U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that the agencies "have broad discretion to determine the timing and scope of lease sales, including not holding them at all," FOE said in the press statement.
Bob LeResche, a Powder River Basin Resource Council board member and chair of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, noted that the industry has already "stockpiled" more than 9,000 approved federal drilling permits.
"Forcing Interior to lease without fully weighing public impacts is industry’s attempt to continue looting public resources by accumulating excess leases at bargain basement prices," said LeResche. "The industry could continue drilling and producing as normal for decades even with no new leases."
The postponement represents a correction of BLM's longtime practice of "blindly" leasing public lands for oil and gas drilling "without actually understanding the impacts of development," said Peter Hart, an attorney with Wilderness Workshop.
"Now the agency is working to reevaluate its oil and gas management and to assess impacts, like those that new development will have on the climate," he added. "It just makes sense to pause new leasing until the program is brought into this century, and it is well within the agency’s authority."