Wyoming Leasing Decision

by Kathleen Sgamma, President of Western Energy Alliance on March 21, 2019 - 10:31am

Or How a #FakeNews Narrative is Born

This week, the D.C. District Court ruled that BLM did not conduct adequate greenhouse gas analysis under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for 300,000 acres of leases in Wyoming. While Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that lease cancelation is not appropriate, he went far beyond the appropriate remedy for a NEPA violation, which is more NEPA, and enjoined future drilling permits on these leases.

The judge also overreached by ignoring decades of legal precedent. Environmental analysis under NEPA for oil and natural gas has always been phased. Since it’s impossible to know at the leasing stage how many wells will be developed on the parcels, or even if they will be developed at all, the analysis requirements at the leasing stage are different than subsequent analyses once actual projects and numbers of wells are proposed. The judge is asking BLM to take a wild guess at how many wells would be developed on these leases and analyze greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts for wells that may never be developed.

Western Energy Alliance has been in court for a few years now defending these leases. We are very disappointed in this ruling, especially since the judge did not give us the opportunity in oral arguments to point out obvious things like the case law that supports phased, multiple-layer NEPA analysis, and the fact that since BLM doesn’t have jurisdiction over downstream activities, it has no legal obligation to analyze GHG impacts downstream off the lease.

This decision is ripe for successful appeal, and we’ll encourage the Interior Department to appeal this case. We’ll be there every step of the way. While this decision immediately affects the lessees, this is extremely bad precedent for the entire onshore oil and natural gas system.

#FakeNews

So now to my subtitle. What on earth does this serious matter, that sows uncertainty into the entire federal onshore system, have to do with Fake News?

Well, the media, in its rush to burnish its easy narrative on climate change, spun the story as a failure of the Trump Administration to conduct greenhouse gas analysis. The Washington Post breathlessly wrote that the decision “…marks the first time the Trump administration has been held to account for the climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda.”

When I pointed out to the reporter that the leases in question where from 2015 and 2016, even before Trump was an announced candidate, she did add the years to the story when she included my quotes, but didn’t change the narrative. That bit that I’ve quoted above from the original news alert remains in the story.

I mean, I get President Obama blaming President Bush for the poor economy in the first few years of his presidency, but that excuse became worn in years three, four, five, six, seven and eight. But reaching back before a president’s term and blaming the new guy for something the old guy failed to do? Now that’s a new twist!

The incorrect narrative goes further in the story. “While the Interior Department began to take into account the climate impacts of federal oil, gas and coal leasing toward the end of Obama’s second term, administration officials jettisoned those plans when President Trump took office.” That is completely untrue. BLM under Trump continues to analyze climate impacts in NEPA documents. I informed the reporter of this, but she chose to ignore it. It’s simple to check. Go to any BLM leasing environmental assessment since 2017, and you will see analysis for GHGs and climate change.

The truth of the matter is that both the Obama and Trump administrations did and are doing the correct level of GHG/climate change analysis for the leasing stage. The Trump BLM is basically following the type of analysis established during the Obama Administration. Now, does BLM do it perfectly…no. Could BLM do better, more consistent greenhouse gas analysis across state and field offices…yes. But both administrations have done the correct level of phased GHG analysis.

You could say that about almost any NEPA analysis, which is why it’s so easy for environmental groups to sue over procedural NEPA issues and win. NEPA documents are complex and unwieldy, and there’s always quibbling to do over how good the analysis is.

But climate change analysis most definitely does not need to be speculative about guessing how many wells could maybe possibly be drilled, nor does BLM have an obligation to analyze total climate impacts from wellhead to burner tip.

This ruling is ripe for appeal, and we’re optimistic about our chances. Western Energy Alliance will be there every step of the way defending these leases.

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