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It’s Final: Administration to Reconsider Oil, Gas Leases on 4 Million Acres of Public Lands

Aerial photo of methane field
Photo: EcoFlight / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In response to lawsuits filed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, WildEarth Guardians, and the Western Environmental Law Center, the Biden administration will review and reconsider decisions to sell oil and gas leases on nearly four  million acres of public lands.

The decision came as part of three settlement agreements upheld by a federal judge this week reflecting lawsuits filed by the groups between 2016 and 2021. The suits, citing the failure of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to address the climate implications of leasing oil and gas, challenged the sale of fracking rights on public lands in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

“At last it’s final,” said Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s director of Environment and Health. “Our settlements give new hope that we can more effectively confront the climate crisis and protect health from oil and gas extraction.

“Given how dangerously greenhouse gas levels are rising, it’s critical that the Biden administration put the brakes on fracking and speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuels extracted from public lands and waters, including coal, oil, and gas, are responsible for more than 900 million metric tons of climate pollution, equal to the emissions from nearly 200 million vehicles. Together, oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for nearly 10% of all climate pollution released in the U.S.

In 2016, PSR and the other two groups filed suit challenging the sale of nearly 460,000 acres of public lands oil and gas leases in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of D.C., the case was the first to target the failure of Interior to address the nationwide climate impacts of its oil and gas leasing program.

In 2019, Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled in favor of the groups. In the landmark ruling, Judge Contreras chided the federal government for ignoring the cumulative climate implications of oil and gas leasing.

Following this ruling, the groups again filed suit in 2020, challenging nearly 2 million acres of oil and gas leases in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Interior ultimately conceded defeat in late 2020 over most of the leasing. Shortly after, Judge Contreras issued another ruling in favor of the groups over the federal government’s failure to respond to his original order on remand.

In January 2021, right before President Biden assumed office, the groups again filed suit challenging the sale of more than 1 million acres of oil and gas leases in the western U.S.

The settlements resolve the three lawsuits, committing the Biden administration to address the climate implications of oil and gas leasing and reconsider past decisions. In an order issued June 1, Judge Contreras dismissed the cases, rejecting industry attempts to derail agreements that had been reached.

Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program director for WildEarth Guardians, called the suit “a critical opportunity for the Biden administration to chart a new path toward clean energy and independence from fossil fuels.”

Scientists have warned that to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis, oil, gas, and coal production must rapidly decrease worldwide, and ultimately end. In spite of this dire warning, the federal government has for years rubber-stamped more oil and gas leasing, locking in more greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this leasing has involved public lands in the western U.S.