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WildEarth Guardians

Important victory holds D.C. accountable for unrestrained oil and gas drilling on public lands

WildEarth Guardians et al. v. Jewell et al.
Case No.
Date Filed
August 25, 2016
State, Venue
District of Columbia, District of Columbia Federal District Court
Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, Kyle Tisdale (Western Environmental Law Center)
In March of 2019, the Federal District Court in Washington D.C. ruled in favor of Guardians who, in August 2016, filed a civil action against the Department of Interior (DOI) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for their flippant disregard for human health and the environment as they continue to grant hundreds of new oil and gas permits in the American West. The lawsuit targets 397 drilling leases granted by the agencies in 2015-16, which cover 379,950 acres of public land in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Guardians argues that the harmful impacts of drilling operations on land, water, and climate were not properly analyzed, and thus the lease sales violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The suit, which Guardians filed in the District of Columbia District Court, asks for these drilling leases to be halted until the agencies comply with the law.

The drilling permits, issued under the Obama administration, affect a wide range of public lands, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Utah’s Red Rock Country, and archeological hotspots around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Oil and gas drilling and fracking risk direct harm to the environment and human health through local soil and water contamination. These extraction techniques also cause harm through the release of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which contribute to climate change and negatively affect the environment and human health on a global scale. The impacts of drilling and fracking are wide-reaching and complex. Guardians contends that the BLM, which issued the permits, did not adequately assess all the potential impacts of opening nearly 400,000 acres of public land to new oil and gas development. During his tenure, President Obama made great strides to reduce the United States’ contribution to GHG emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, in a report issued by the Wilderness Society, it is estimated that 10 percent of U.S. energy-related climate pollution can be traced back to the extraction of publicly owned oil and gas. Guardians notes in the lawsuit that while the Obama administration made commitments to a clean energy future, it failed to disclose an accounting of greenhouse gas emissions and estimates of climate impacts from public lands oil and gas leasing, despite being legally obligated to do so under NEPA. Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C., joined the civil action and contends that the global health impacts of climate change require action in order to protect the wellbeing of present and future generations. This lawsuit is particularly cogent as the present administration has systematically dismantled Obama-era protections for the environment, and a precedent must be set in order to require proper compliance with NEPA and safeguard our public lands and water, and by extension, our health and climate.