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Oil leases broke the law by not assessing climate impact, judge rules

WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West.

The decision late Tuesday by US District Judge Rudolph Contreras of Washington could have sweeping implications for President Trump’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country. Contreras concluded that the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management ‘‘did not sufficiently consider climate change’’ when making decisions to auction off federal land in Wyoming to oil and gas drilling in 2015 and 2016, under the Obama administration. The judge temporarily blocked drilling on roughly 300,000 acres of land in the state.

The initial ruling in the case brought by two advocacy groups, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, has implications for oil and gas drilling on federal land throughout the West. In the decision, Contreras — a Barack Obama appointee — faulted the agency’s environmental assessment as inadequate because it did not detail how individual drilling projects contributed to the nation’s overall carbon output. Since greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change, the judge wrote, these analyses did not provide policy makers and the public with a sufficient understanding of drilling’s impact, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

‘‘Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling,’’ he wrote.

Contreras did not void the leases outright, but instead ordered BLM to redo its analysis of hundreds of projects in Wyoming.

Western Energy Alliance president Kathleen Sgamma, whose group is one of the defendants in the case, said in a phone interview that she was confident the ruling could be overturned on appeal. She noted that the Obama and Trump administrations had conducted similar climate analyses in their leasing documents and that it was impossible to predict the cumulative impact of these auctions because just under half of all federal land leased for drilling is eventually developed.

‘‘This judge has ignored decades of legal precedent in this ruling,’’ she said. ‘‘The judge is basically asking BLM to take a wild guess on how many wells will be developed on leases, prematurely.’’

Jeremy Nichols, who directs WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, said in a phone interview that the decision would force the administration to reveal how its policies are helping to fuel climate change. He said his group would now take steps to try to block federal oil and gas lease auctions scheduled for next week, which encompass 560,000 acres of western land.

‘‘It calls into question the legality of the Trump administration’s entire oil and gas program,’’ Nichols said. ‘‘This forces them to pull their head out of the sand and look at the bigger picture.’’

Federal oil, gas, and coal leasing — both on land and offshore — accounts for a quarter of America’s total carbon output, according to a report issued last year by Interior’s US Geological Survey. Oil and gas drilling accounts for about 40 percent, or 500 million metric tons, of that total.

Even if Contreras’s decision stands, however, it may not block the administration’s energy agenda altogether. While BLM would be required to disclose the overall climate impact of its leasing decisions, it could potentially still go ahead and open those lands up for development.

While the Interior Department began to take into account the climate impacts of federal oil, gas, and coal leasing toward the end of Obama’s second term, Trump administration officials jettisoned those plans right after Donald Trump took office. Interior lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing in 2017 and is working to overhaul a 2016 guidance that requires federal agencies to assess the global climate impact of their policies.

Trump and several of his top deputies have dismissed recent federal findings that the United States and other countries must curb their carbon output in the next decade or face potentially disastrous consequences from climate change.