BILLINGS, Mont. – The Biden administration reached a legal settlement Tuesday that requires the government to reexamine potential climate damages from oil and gas leases put up for sale under the Trump administration on government land in Montana and North Dakota.
Similar deals have been reached in recent weeks for lease sales covering thousands of square miles public lands under the Trump and Obama administrations in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Tuesday’s settlement between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups involves parcels totaling 91 square miles and was detailed in documents filed in U.S. District Court in Montana.
About a quarter of U.S. fossil fuels comes from federal lands and waters, making them important for industry and also a prime target for climate activists who want to shut down leasing.
The state of Wyoming and American Petroleum Institute opposed attempts to revisit previously sold leases. They argued that leasing decisions were final after 90 days and any changes now could financially harm companies.
WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and other groups had sued over the sales. They’re hopeful President Joe Biden’s administration will curb drilling on the leased parcels after climate damages and other future potential pollution are considered.
“Our hope is that they’re not just rubber stamping drilling permits, that they recognize they are legally vulnerable,” said Jeremy Nichols with Wild Earth Guardians.
The agreements don't include deadlines for new environmental reviews, and they don’t cancel any leases or prevent development. Any attempt to do so would meet fierce opposition from energy companies and their allies in Congress.
“It doesn’t matter what administration is in office the goal of these groups is to keep energy resources in the ground,” said Aaron Johnson with the industry group Western Energy Alliance. “Settlements like this mean it’s even harder to operate on public lands because of the political, regulatory, and legal hurdles that exist."
Biden campaigned on pledges to end new drilling on public lands and suspended new oil and gas lease sales when he took office last year. The move drew multiple lawsuits from Republican-led states and the oil and gas industry.
Those cases have resulted in conflicting court rulings on whether the suspension was legal.
The latest ruling came Friday, when U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl sided with Biden in lawsuits brought by the state of Wyoming and industry.
Skavdahl said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was justified in postponing onshore oil and gas sales last March because of concerns about climate impacts and other environmental problems.
However, at least some of the parcels of land at issue were sold while the case was pending. That came after a federal judge in Louisiana in a separate case said the leasing suspension was invalid and ordered sales to resume.