Federal judges are testing the Trump administration’s authority to expand fossil fuel extraction. This is but the latest example of legal challenges curtailing the administration’s assault on the environment. The Washington Post reports that the Trump administration has lost about 40 environmental cases in federal courts.
In recent weeks more than half a million acres of western land was auctioned off in federal oil and gas lease auctions. However, 2 recent rulings by district court judges offer at least temporary protection. These rulings pertain to offshore drilling along America’s coastlines and as much as 13 million acres of land could also be protected from resource extraction. The first ruling temporarily halts drilling in Wyoming and the second suspends plans to drill in the Arctic ocean.
A U.S. Geological Survey report published at the end of 2018 revealed that, fossil fuel leases both on land and offshore account for a quarter of America’s total carbon emissions and oil and gas drilling accounts for about 40 percent, or 500 million metric tons, of that total.
The courts recently reinstated an offshore drilling Ban in the Arctic and the Atlantic. At the end of March U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that April 2017 Trump’s executive order to overturn Obama era bans on drilling in Arctic Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic coast was unlawful was unlawful. The judge ruled that while the president has the authority to remove lands from development the office does not give him the authority to revoke those removals. This, according to Judge Gleason, can only be done through an act of Congress.
In 2015 Obama banned drilling in both the Arctic and the Atlantic. Obama banned exploration in 120 million acres of Arctic Ocean to protect polar bears, bowhead whales, walruses and the native people who depend on them. He also banned drilling in 3.8 million acres of coral canyons in the Atlantic, citing their importance for deep-water corals, rarefish populations and migratory whales.
As a result of this ruling Trump’s Interior Department will now have to shelve plans to drill in the Arctic. Unsurprisingly the American Petroleum Institute disagreed with the ruling.
This ruling has profound implications for the Trump administration’s ‘Energy Dominance’ agenda that seeks to ramp-up fossil fuel extraction both offshore and on public lands including two million acres of national monuments in Utah (the Bears Ears monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante). Judge Gleason’s ruling has implications for cases seeking to protect these monuments).
In a separate ruling, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras halted hundreds of drilling projects in Wyoming citing the administration’s failure to consider the impact of climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions. Contreras ordered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to redo its analysis saying the agency “did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing”. Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that BLM must consider potential emissions from all former, current or likely future leases every time it leases land for oil and gas development. BLM will have to assess climate impacts of transporting fossil fuels and the economic impact of climate change from the burining of fossil fuels.
This ruling could have significant implications for drilling on public lands across the country including leases in Utah and Colorado.
“With the science mounting that we need to aggressively rein in greenhouse gases, this ruling is monumental,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney and energy and communities program director for the Western Environmental Law Center. “Every acre of our public land sold to the oil and gas industry is another blow to the climate, making this ruling a powerful reality check on the Trump administration and a potent tool for reining in climate pollution.”
“This is the Holy Grail ruling we’ve been after, especially with oil and gas,” Jeremy Nichols, Director of the Climate and Energy Program of WildEarth Guardians, the group that filed the lawsuit along with Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the Associated Press. “It calls into question the legality of oil and gas leasing that’s happening everywhere.”
This could prove to be a landmark ruling because it could force the Trump administration to account for the full climate impact of its fossil fuel agenda.
Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Mark Gordon criticized the ruling saying, “Bringing our country to its knees is not the way to thwart climate change.” However, he did not mention the fact that unchecked climate change is far more likely to bring the country to its knees than reducing fossil fuel extraction.
These rulings are expected to be appealed in the Ninth Circuit and ultimately the the Supreme Court. However, this could take years.
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