Environmental groups sue Biden administration for failing to consider climate change in oil leasing

Lawsuit challenges the public land leasing in eight states, including New Mexico

An oil pumpjack casts a shadow on a wall as it pulls oil from the Permian Basin oil field on March 14, 2022. (Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

On the day that more than 119,000 acres of public land in Wyoming went out to bid for oil and gas leasing, 10 groups sued the Department of the Interior for not properly taking climate change into account in determining the lease sites throughout eight western states.

Furthermore, in the federal government’s haste to resume federal land leasing after a federal court in Louisiana found the Biden Administration’s “pause” on leases illegal, the lawsuit claims, federal officials completely ignored environmental law and side-stepped protections by only looking at the impacts of each individual lease site, rather than the cumulative impact of leasing more than 140,000 acres of public land to oil and gas.

The lawsuit challenges the public land leasing in Montana, Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

The suit claims that the total effects of leasing the public lands, which the Bureau of Land Management administers, will result in significantly increased greenhouse gases, which will continue to exacerbate already devastating climate change. The suit said that federal officials have failed to consider the environmental impacts of the leasing, which will cost not just the United States, but the world, billions as it encounters catastrophic weather.

173 leases, 144,000 acres, eight states

The suit focuses on 173 leases that total 144,000 acres of land in mostly western states.

The groups said that the federal government failed to even consider the environmental impact of leasing more oil and gas production by issuing environmental assessments of the projects, which concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.”

Filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the suit claims that the leases must be considered under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Federal public lands used for fossil fuel extraction contribute 24% of the United States greenhouse gas emissions. If federal lands were their own country, their greenhouse gas emissions would be ranked fifth globally,” the suit said. “Moreover, future development of unleased federal minerals represents a ‘carbon bomb’ that would likely push global climate change to catastrophic levels with incalculable consequences for the American people, the rest of humanity and the global environment.”

The suit contends that the Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Land Management, must do more than just identify the impacts in its analysis. The lawsuit claims the department must also evaluate the severity of the impact. From the federal Council on Environmental Quality, which is meant to be the national administrative agency guiding climate policy, the suit quotes:

“Climate change results from the incremental addition of greenhouse gas emissions from millions of individual sources, which collectively have a large impact on a global scale. The Council on Environmental Quality recognizes that the totality of climate change impacts is not attributable to any single action … therefore, a statement that emissions from a proposed federal action represent only a small fraction of global emissions is essentially a statement about the nature of the climate change challenge, and is not an appropriate basis for deciding whether or not to what extent to consider climate change impacts under NEPA.”


The 63-page lawsuit also details the extent to which the Biden administration was going to consider the environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling prior to the decision by a federal judge in Louisiana.

Within three weeks of President Joe Biden’s Jan. 27, 2021, order to pause leasing, the Department of the Interior’s solicitor issued an opinion on the sales of leases in Colorado, Montana, the Dakotas, Utah and Wyoming, recommending that all sales be postponed because “each sale raises serious questions as to NEPA compliance.”

“The Louisiana court, however, did not preclude the possibility of lease sale postponements due to NEPA or other environmental concerns with a particular sale,” the lawsuit said, opening the door that Biden policy could be challenged in court on different grounds.

Assessing the costs

The suit claims that since the Louisiana ruling, the federal government punted the issue of environmental assessment, essentially using the same findings for each lease included in the bidding.

“There are no established thresholds for NEPA analysis to contextualize the quantifiable greenhouse gas emissions or social cost of an action in terms of the action’s effect on the climate, incrementally,” the BLM said.

However, as part of the lawsuit, the groups outline several different methods used to help quantify those impacts, and said the federal government made little attempt to seek out an answer to its question.

For example, using a method called the “Social Costs of Greenhouse Gas,” a tool that tries to assess the cost of carbon, nitrous oxide and methane together, the court filing put a price-tag of between $11 and $105 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.

That would put the societal costs of the carbon released through sale of the leases at between $410 million and $4.7 billion.

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Another method called “carbon budgeting” uses a model that would place a cap on the total amount of carbon released “while still keeping global average temperature rise below scientifically-based warming thresholds.”

“Using the International Panel on Climate Change’s revised carbon budget, a 2019 Oil Change International Report found that ‘oil, gas, and coal in existing fields would push the world far beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius while exhausting a 2-degrees Celsius budget as well.’ There is no room for new fossil fuel development,” the suit said.

Using the same report, the lawsuit pointed out that between now and 2030, the United States is on track to make up 60 percent of the world’s growth in oil and gas extraction, “at least four times more than any other country.”

“If not curtailed, U.S. oil and gas expansion will impede the rest of the world’s ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production,” the 2019 report said.

“We’re out of time, and our climate can’t afford any new fossil fuel extraction,” said Taylor McKinnon at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By leasing more public land for fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing it out, President Biden is breaking campaign promises and falling dangerously short of the global leadership required to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

The groups that launched the lawsuit are the Dakota Resource Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rio Grande Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Western Watersheds Project and Wildearth Guardians.

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Darrell Ehrlick, Daily Montanan
Darrell Ehrlick, Daily Montanan

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.