In a first-of-its-kind case, a federal judge last week dismissed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after the agency said it would suspend leases on 61 parcels of public land until it determines the effect of natural gas and oil drilling on climate change.

Judge Donald W. Molloy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana dismissed the case brought by the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and WildEarth Guardians.

“We’re very pleased, and we think that this is a very important first step for the BLM to address climate change for oil and gas development on federal public lands,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center, counsel for plaintiffs. A similar lawsuit is pending in New Mexico over federal leases on about 70,000 aces, he said.

The groups had filed a lawsuit against BLM in December 2008 over four consecutive federal gas and oil lease sales held in April, June, August and November 2008. The lawsuit argued that BLM had “failed to address greenhouse gas [GHG] pollution by quantifying and reducing GHG pollution. GHG pollution — in particular methane, a GHG 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide — is the product of inefficient, wasteful oil and gas operations” (U.S. Bureau of Land Management, et al. v. Montana Environmental Information Center, et al., No. 9:08-cv-00178-DWM). The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) intervened for BLM in the case.

According to the state of Montana’s September 2007 Final Montana Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Reference Case Projections 1990-2020G, oil and gas operations released 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2005, more than 12% of the state’s total GHG emissions, the lawsuit stated. “The 2007 GHG Inventory projects that GHGs from oil and gas operations in Montana will increase by more than 10% by 2020.

“In Montana’s sister state of Wyoming, the state of Wyoming’s Final Wyoming Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Reference Case Projections 1990-2020 found that oil and gas operations in Wyoming released 11.5 million metric tons of CO2 in 2005, more than 20% of the state’s total GHG emissions. Furthermore, by 2020, GHGs from oil and gas operations are projected to increase by nearly 10%…Oil and gas development in Wyoming is relevant to Montana because of cross-boundary impacts and development in, for example, the Powder River Basin.”

BLM agreed to suspend the leases on more than 30,000 acres while it conducts additional reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Once the environmental assessments are completed, BLM would be able to lift the suspensions, require changes to the lease agreements or void the leases. BLM also agreed to pay half of the attorneys’ fees and costs for the plaintiffs.

Asked what type of review BLM would conduct, spokeswoman Mary Apple said it hadn’t yet been determined. Fifty of the leases are on land where a Resource Management Plan is in process. The remaining 11 leases would have to be examined individually, she said. The NEPA reviews would use modeling to determine GHG emissions and the effect of gas and oil leasing on potential climate change, she said.

Determining what GHG model to use is “still kind of a gray area,” Apple said.

An IPAMS official said the settlement is another example of groups using NEPA to delay gas and oil leasing.

“We decided not to oppose [the settlement] but have been assured by BLM that we will have a seat at a table as they are working on the NEPA to correct the situation,” said Kathleen Sgamma, who directs IPAMS government affairs. The lawsuit “is short-sighted and fails to consider the net benefits of burning gas for greenhouse emissions…The environmental groups…choose to focus on production alone.”

WildEarth’s Jeremy Nichols, who directs the group’s climate and energy program, said, “It may seem unlikely, but there are a host of proven, cost-effective technologies and practices which reduce climate pollution, increase royalties to federal and state governments, and keep oil and gas resources in the pipeline for use by homes, schools and businesses…While our agreement with BLM is a modest first step, we hope it signals a broader commitment by BLM across the American West to reduce climate pollution from federally authorized oil and gas decisions.”

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