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U.S. Ninth Circuit Remands BLM Lease Dispute to Montana Court

Three environmental groups received a favorable opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco last Monday, remanding their challenge to U.S. Bureau Land Management (BLM) leases to the federal district court judge in Montana who previously rejected their claims.

The case brought by the Montana Environmental Information Center, EarthWorks' Oil/Gas Accountability Project and WildEarth Guardians was sent back to federal district Judge Sam Haddon in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, who two years ago denied the groups' lawsuit, ruling they had not shown "concrete and redressable injury" from BLM’s sale of oil and natural gas leases. At the time, Haddon's decision was viewed as a victory for the oil/gas operators (see Daily GPIJune 24, 2013).

The three-judge appeals court panel, with Judge Diarmuid Fionntain O'Scannlain writing for the trio, concluded that the Montana district court erred by "failing to consider surface harms caused by development of the challenged leases and instead focusing only on climate-change effects of such development."

Appellate judges said the environmental groups "may have standing to challenge the government's sale of oil/gas leases on the basis of any concrete injury that is caused by such sale and which would likely be remedied by the sale's invalidation."

One of the industry respondents in the case, Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), said all the appellate judges actually did was send it back to the Montana court. They made no comments on the merits of the lawsuit.

"By remanding back to the district court, presumably the case will now proceed on the merits," said Kathleen Sgamma, WEA vice president for government and public affairs. "What the environmental groups are trying to argue is that all oil/natural gas leasing in Montana should stop because of an infinitesimal impact on climate change."

Sgamma said the case has broad implications, testing whether the environmental lobby can stop all fossil fuel development. She accused the groups of attacking "the foundation of our economy and modern lifestyle on the basis of theoretical climate change impacts, no matter how thin."

O'Scannlain said the district court should do an analysis to determine it there were actual physical harms from the leases being sold and consider "any actual injury stemming from surface harms fairly traceable to the challenged action."

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