Trump Administration Sued for Oil and Gas Lease Sales on Public Lands

Four environmental groups sued the Federal Government for the unlawful release of over 115,000 acres of public lands for oil and gas development without proper environmental protections.

Public lands oil and gas development and fracking near Utah’s White and Green Rivers. Photo: Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity / EcoFlight

The land areas at issue are in western Colorado and northern Utah. As with other moves by the Trump Administration to allow access to National Monuments, government Preserves, and even National Parks recently, this one has the Federal government allowing the fossil fuel industry to dig, drill, frack and otherwise ravage the environment with little to no evaluation of the environmental impacts of the oil and gas leases being sold.

Without question, the lease sales offered by the Bureau of Land Management will worsen air quality in regions already loaded up with way-too-high levels of ozone pollution. On the ground, spills from oil and gas exploration and the chemicals used to carry them out will create further harm to the land, waterways and natural aquifers.

The new lawsuit, filed on September 27 in U.S. District Court in Denver, was prepared by the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association and WildEarth Guardians as plaintiffs. Earthjustice is representing the groups. The goal of the suit is to invalidate the leases granted to oil and gas companies by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s BLM due to the agency’s failure to properly analyze risks to public health and the environment, as required by federal laws.

“Zinke’s playing a dangerous game by skipping environmental reviews at the risk of human lives,” said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s appalling that he’d push for more fossil fuel extraction on public lands and then ignore how much damage fracking would do, particularly to kids with asthma. The Trump administration’s drilling and fracking agenda is a disaster for people and wildlife alike.”

Oil and gas operations are the largest human-made source of air and climate pollution in the Uinta Basin, plaguing this once-pristine region with significant air pollution comparable with densely populated cities like Los Angeles and Denver. Elevated levels of ozone pollution endanger public health, causing asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease and premature death. It’s particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, including children, seniors and people with respiratory conditions. 

The leased area includes land near Dinosaur National Monument, where more than 300,000 visitors a year come to experience the expansive views, untouched landscape and dark night skies. Air pollution from oil and gas drilling in the region already worsens visibility, stunts vegetation growth and harms delicate ecosystems.  More oil and gas development in the area will only make matters worse.

The BLM had a legal duty to analyze and address potential harms to human health and landscapes before leasing the 115,000 acres in December 2017 and June 2018. The agency skipped this analysis, instead prioritizing the interests of oil and gas companies over public health and environmental protection. Today’s lawsuit claims these leasing decisions violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

“Prioritizing economic benefits over public health and the environment is wrong,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild. “This is especially so when the BLM has failed to comply with the laws that would have ensured the public knew the full impacts of these leasing decisions.”

“Our national parks offer millions of people each year the opportunity to connect to the great outdoors and learn about our country’s past, but the protection of our parks can only be assured when their adjacent lands are well-managed," said David Nimkin, NPCA senior southwest regional director. “NPCA is deeply concerned about the deteriorating air quality in this region due to oil and gas development that directly affects national parks like Dinosaur National Monument, as well as the health of park visitors, who come here to experience the striking views, dark night skies and exceptional biodiversity of this unique place. As a recent national study found, park visitation drops by at least eight percent when ozone pollution is high — a clear indicator that air quality is an important issue for the public and directly impacts their enjoyment of our national parks.”

“Not only are we moving to protect our communities, public health and national parks by addressing ozone pollution head on, we’re also moving to protect our climate by ensuring that Trump and Zinke account for the cumulative impacts from federal oil and gas leasing,” said Becca Fischer, climate guardian for WildEarth Guardians. “The federal government has ignored these costs for too long.”

 “This case is about enforcing our environmental laws, which are designed to protect public health, the environment and treasured places like Dinosaur National Monument,” said Stu Gillespie, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “BLM cannot circumvent these laws in its headlong rush to lease our public lands for oil and gas development. We’re asking the court to hold the agency accountable and set aside these illegal leasing decisions.”