Legal holdups of oil and natural gas leases on federal lands are less likely following a federal district judge’s ruling on a five-year-old Montana case that effectively blocked an environmental steamroller, according to officials at the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), which has represented oil and gas industry interests against environmental challenges throughout the West.

U.S. District Judge for the Montana District Sam Haddon on June 14 dismissed a lawsuit seeking to block 120 U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases on about 80,000 acres dating back to 2008 sales in Montana. The lawsuit had been filed by a coalition of environmental organizations, including the Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians and Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

Haddon ruled that the estimated emissions from future drilling were too small (a fraction of 1%) relative to the state’s total emissions to make a “meaningful contribution” to global greenhouse gas (GHG) levels. As such, the environmental groups could not demonstrate that the proposed BLM lease sales would lead to climate change impacts.

The environmental groups contended that the GHG emissions would hurt recreational and aesthetic interests in lands near the leases, zeroing in on methane emissions in the oilfields, which are considered more potent than carbon dioxide coming from natural gas combustion.

An attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, told NGI that the groups have 60 days to decide if they will appeal the decision. In the meantime, “we’re working through various BLM decision-making processes across the West, primarily in Colorado and Montana. Any decisions regarding litigation for those decision-making processes depends on whether the agency takes meaningful action to remedy methane pollution and waste from oil and gas activities.”

Citing the federal designation of methane as the second biggest U.S. source of GHG emissions, Schlenker-Goodrich said there are “proven, viable and economical technologies and practices to keep methane out of the atmosphere and to thereby combat climate change while increasing the supply of natural gas.” He accused the industry and federal government of rejecting something that would be economic and beneficial to oil/gas operators.

Saying that the significance of the judge’s ruling is being under-appreciated, WEA’s Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for governmental affairs, said “they could have used [an adverse] ruling to shut down oil/gas development on just about any federal lands.” Sgamma said the multi-group lawsuit was “a typical pattern” followed by lawyers for various environmental causes opposing any oil/gas development on federal lands.

“They try to start small, drive a wedge into something and then let it explode,” Sgamma said. “In this case, they decided to sue oil/gas leases in Montana, although they could have done it anywhere. They were going to start small and see if they could get something to stick. If this lawsuit had been successful, it would have spread over the entire federal onshore oil/gas world. If they had been successful in Montana, they would have marched through every energy producing federal lands state, or blanket sued the BLM for any oil/gas leases granted.”

Sgamma said this would have opened up an onslaught on any oil/gas project with an approved National Environmental Protection Act document, and finally the opponents would have protested any BLM permits.

As the judge alluded to in his ruling, she said, once the groups had won over oil/gas issues, they would have been free to oppose just about any economic activity on federal lands that produced any amount GHG emissions.

She cited Haddon’s determination that “the required causal link cannot be established by merely showing that methane emissions from lease sites will make any infinitesimal contribution to global GHG levels, as ‘anyone could be liable for the most innocuous of acts — driving to work, watching the television or [turning] on a light’ — as all contribute to global warming and climate change.”

Sgamma concluded that the groups been successful in establishing that “an infinitesimal amount of GHG emissions are significant, they would have really been able to go after any human activity that they didn’t like.”

As it turned out, the judge rejected this, saying the environmental groups “failed to show they have standing before the court; they have not demonstrated that the sale of the oil/gas leases at issue will lead to climate change impacts resulting in injury to their recreational and aesthetic interests in lands near the leases.”

A BLM spokesperson told reporters that the agency was unsure what immediate impact the ruling would have, because as of May there was no drilling ongoing on any of the 120 leases involved in the legal dispute. The parcels are scattered throughout the state.

Officials at the Montana Petroleum Association said they were hopeful that the judge’s ruling would spur development of some of the leases by explorers, but that will depend on a number of factors. “We think this is a significant step forward and we hope companies will be encouraged. These lawsuits can be a significant roadblock to production,” a spokesperson said.

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