By- Anastasia Hufham – The Salt Lake Tribune – A new lawsuit targeting Trump-era oil and gas leases in Utah takes aim at the former president’s approach to fossil fuel development.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, filed a federal lawsuit challenging four decisions made by the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 and 2019 to issue 145 oil and gas leases on over 215,000 acres of public land earlier this month. Most of the leases are located throughout the Book Cliffs and Uinta Basin in eastern Utah.
“This is like a poster child of all the things that went wrong with the Trump administration’s rush to blanket public lands with oil and gas leases,” Landon Newell, a staff attorney with SUWA, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Somewhat unsurprisingly, when you rush forward, totally ignoring science and totally ignoring data to blanket Utah’s wild places with leases, it’s going to obviously face public pushback, and then it’s going to put the agency in a bind,” Newell continued. “And that’s what happened here.”
When the leases were issued, President Donald Trump said he had “ended the war on American energy.” The Trump administration pushed an “energy dominance” agenda, which manifested in regulatory rollbacks for fossil fuel development.
The industry says that these lawsuits aim to render oil and gas leasing obsolete.
“No matter who leases, Keep-It-in-the-Ground groups like SUWA will sue because they just don’t want any American oil and natural gas production,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents 200 oil and gas producers in the West, wrote to The Tribune in an email. “Whether under Trump or Biden, leasing is done after careful analysis and land use planning which looks at impacts on wildlife, plants, and other natural resources.”
Following Trump’s announcement, oil and gas lease offerings in Utah increased sevenfold from 2017 to 2020 compared to a similar period under the Obama administration, according to SUWA. The environmental nonprofit argues that the Trump-era BLM skimped on environmental assessments and public input for oil and gas leasing.
Federal courts have generally agreed.
In 2020, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that the BLM under the Trump administration had limited public input on oil and gas leasing in a manner that was “arbitrary and capricious.” The ruling canceled a million acres of oil and gas leases.
Later that year, a federal judge in Montana ruled the BLM hadn’t conducted proper environmental assessments before issuing hundreds of oil and gas leases, violating the National Environmental Policy Act.
The BLM suspended or reexamined Trump-era oil and gas leases in Utah, too. In 2019, SUWA challenged the BLM over some of the oil and gas leases subject to this new litigation for failing to analyze climate impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.
Soon after that lawsuit was filed, the Utah BLM Office retracted leases spanning thousands of acres to analyze their environmental impacts.
But more leases haven’t produced more oil and gas. Speculation — when oil and gas producers buy leases but don’t intend to use them for production — is rampant on Utah’s public lands, Newell said.
Just because the federal government sets aside millions of acres of Utah’s public lands for oil and gas doesn’t mean those leases get developed.
“The ‘energy dominance’ agenda was not only illegal and poorly conceived and poorly executed, but it did absolutely nothing to achieve the goals that it wanted to achieve,” said Newell.
In a report released in 2021, the Department of Interior concluded that the federal oil and gas leasing program inadequately accounted for environmental impacts, encouraged speculation and failed to include local communities in decision-making processes.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, increased royalty rates, rents and minimum bids for oil and gas leases on public lands. The BLM has proposed a rule that would codify these changes for the agency, as well as increase bonding requirements.
The federal government says that these changes will “increase returns to the public and disincentivize speculators or less responsible actors.”
to BLM data, the amount of oil and gas-producing land in Utah has consistently hovered around 1 million acres over the past 15 years. But the total acreage of existing leases — including those not in production — has ranged from 2 million to 5 million acres in that same time.
SUWA hopes that the court will vacate the leasing decisions made in 2018 and 2019 and prohibit the BLM from acting on current permit applications for the leases in question until the agency fully complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.