Environmental groups challenge Biden administration oil and gas reserve auctions
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Environmental groups challenge Biden administration oil and gas reserve auctions

A coalition of ten environmental groups Wednesday sued the US Department of the Interior (DOI) and its Bureau of Land Management for resuming auctions to lease public lands with oil and gas reserves in eight western states. The environmental groups claim the auctions violate two laws and are incompatible with President Joe Biden’s climate-related promises.

Within days of taking office in January 2021, Biden suspended the powers of the Bureau to implement fossil fuel lease auctions and directed the DOI to pause oil and gas leases on public lands pending a “comprehensive review and reconsideration… including potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities.” While the DOI in November released a report as directed, the report did not study the environmental impacts of the leases.

This April, the Bureau posted lease sale notices for 173 parcels of public lands over 144,000 acres, of which nearly 120,000 are in Wyoming, where auctions began Wednesday. The plaintiffs, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Dakota Resource Council, and Sierra Club, claim the approval to auction these lands violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA).

As per 40 CFR §1508.1 , all federal agencies must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for each federal action “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment”. However, an agency can forgo the preparation of an EIS if it is able to show through an environmental assessment (EA) the federal action will have no “significant effect on the human environment.”

With respect to the leases, the Bureau issued seven EAs finding no significant environmental impact, saying it found “no established thresholds for NEPA analysis to contextualize the quantifiable greenhouse gas emissions.”

Meanwhile, 43 U.S.C §1732(b) entrusts the DOI with the responsibility to prevent “unnecessary or undue degradation of the [federal public] lands.”

The plaintiffs note fossil fuel extraction from federal public lands contributes to 24% of US greenhouse gas emissions and western US states—where the land parcels lie—face a “mega-drought” and unprecedented wildfires exacerbated by climate change. In light of this and the availability of several standards in the scientific literature for assessing environmental impact, the plaintiffs claim the Bureau’s failure to prepare an EIS was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with due process. They request the court to find the defendants in violation of NEPA and FLPMA, order them to undertake an EIS, and vacate their leasing authorizations, thereby blocking the auctions.

Two other groups—The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth—filed a separate suit against the Wyoming auctions with similar NEPA claims.