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Federal judge rejects sale of public lands for fracking in Utah

December 12, 2020
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians, (303) 437-7663, jnichols@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Climate + Energy  
SALT LAKE CITY— A federal judge this week overturned the Trump administration’s sale of more than 60,000 acres of public land for fracking in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin, including areas near Dinosaur National Monument, ruling that the Bureau of Land Management violated the law by refusing to consider alternatives to leasing all 59 parcels.

“This is a victory for the American West’s iconic parks and monuments, as well as another win for climate and clean air,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program director. “Importantly, it’s another stinging rejection of the Trump administration’s illegal attempts to sell out our legacy of public lands to the oil and gas industry.”

“This is a strong rebuke of Trump’s disastrous fracking frenzy across our public lands, which is destroying the climate, wildlife and frontline communities,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “President-elect Biden’s ban on new federal fossil fuel leasing can’t come soon enough.”

Biden has pledged to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and waters when he takes office January 20, 2021.

“The Court rejected BLM’s attempt to abuse its power by refusing to consider reasonable alternatives to its action,” said Caitlin Miller, an associate attorney at Earthjustice who argued the case. “This is another resounding blow to the agency’s lease everything no matter the consequences attitude.”

In September 2018 environmental groups sued the Bureau for leasing more than 115,000 acres of public land in western Colorado and northern Utah for oil and gas extraction without adequate environmental protections. The suit said the December 2017 and June 2018 lease sales violated federal environmental laws by failing to evaluate plan alternatives that would minimize impacts to sensitive public lands.

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.

“Developing this landscape surrounding Dinosaur National Monument for oil and gas would degrade local air quality, both within the park and nearby communities, as well as threaten the park’s dark night skies, exceptional views and fragile habitat,” said Cory MacNulty, southwest associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We are heartened to see that BLM is being held accountable to comply with the law — as it should have done from the start.”

Thursday’s ruling applies only to the Utah leases because the suit was divided into separate Colorado and Utah lawsuits.

Oil and gas operations are the largest human-made source of air and climate pollution in the Uinta Basin, plaguing this once-pristine rural region with air pollution comparable to that of Los Angeles and Denver. Elevated levels of ozone pollution endanger human health, causing asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease and premature death. It’s particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, including children, seniors and people with respiratory conditions. Air pollution from oil and gas drilling in the region already worsens visibility, stunts vegetation growth and harms delicate ecosystems. 

The lawsuit was filed by Rocky Mountain Wild, National Parks Conservation Association, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. The groups are represented by Earthjustice. 

Background: Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals in recent years.

Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to the industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to the industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from already-leased fossil fuels on federal lands, if fully developed, would essentially exhaust the U.S. carbon budget for staying below warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Existing laws give presidents the authority to end new federal fossil fuel leasing. Hundreds of organizations have petitioned the federal government to end new onshore and offshore leasing.

Green River Dinosaur National Monument

Floating the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by NPS.

Other Contact
Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, (801) 300-2414, tmckinnon@biologicaldiversity.org, Liam Kelly, National Parks Conservation Association, (213) 814 8666, lkelly@npca.org, Caitlin Miller, Earthjustice, (317) 797-4394, cmiller@earthjustice.org