The Biden administration’s pause in conducting oil and natural gas lease sales on federal land is drawing more legal challenges, as plaintiffs argue that the lack of third quarter auctions was illegal.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) this week filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A similar lawsuit was filed by Wyoming officials. The groups filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming (No. 1:22-cv-252).

“The Mineral Leasing Act is clear: the Interior Secretary must hold at least quarterly lease sales in every state where there is interest, as reflected by nominations,” WEA President Kathleen Sgamma said. “Oil and natural gas companies have nominated millions of acres in Wyoming and across the West that have yet to be offered for sale. 

“Not only has this administration held only one set of lease sales in its first two years, but has now signaled that there will be no sales until second quarter 2023, a full year later.” Said Sgamma, “Once a year does not equal ‘quarterly.’”

U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl of Wyoming in September rejected similar lawsuits by industry groups. He wrote that postponing lease sales scheduled for 1Q2021 was done to ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, “with several then-recent federal court opinions that negated previously authorized oil and gas lease sales.”

Was Initial Decision Not Relevant?

PAW, WEA and Wyoming were plaintiffs in the earlier lawsuit. They now argue that the recent decision by Skavdahl was specific to the canceled lease sale in 1Q2021 and is not relevant to the new lawsuits.

“The federal government owns more surface and minerals in Wyoming than every other owner combined,” PAW President Pete Obermueller said. “This level of federal control over a state’s activities and economic health requires an administration that is not only professional and efficient, but willing to follow the law in the first place.

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“Wyoming’s oil and gas operators must have a pipeline of new leases to continue to explore and develop our world-class resources. One lease sale a year does not cut it, and unfortunately court intervention appears to be the only recourse in forcing the Biden administration to respect rule of law.”

Regarding Wyoming’s lawsuit, Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said the litigation was “vital to the interests of Wyoming citizens. Beyond that, Wyoming’s energy resources can help power the nation and bring down costs at the pump. BLM’s decision to cancel lease sales sure seems to be a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law. I firmly believe the pause in lease sales was politically driven and not based in law or fact.”

The Biden administration early in 2021 had cited environmental concerns for pausing federal oil and gas auctions in Executive Order (EO) 14008. Climate adviser Gina McCarthy at the time said it was the administration’s policy “that climate considerations shall be an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.”

Louisiana in March 2021 led a challenge by GOP attorneys general across the country that challenged the EO. Last June, District Judge Terry Doughty of the Western District of Louisiana permanently blocked the EO in the 13 states that had filed the lawsuit (No. 2:21-CV-00778).  

BLM has conducted some state lease sales. The administration also has advanced more leasing but under more stringent guidelines. Among other things, Interior has scheduled two of three offshore auctions and is eyeing May to begin onshore lease sales in several states.

Meanwhile, a federal plan to auction more than 725,000 acres in 11 Central California counties for drilling was blocked Tuesday by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (No. 3:19-cv-07155-JSC). 

The Center for Biological Diversity and other groups had sued BLM to halt new fossil fuel development. 

District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley approved the agreement between BLM and the groups in which the environmental impacts are to be further analyzed. The drilling program had been approved by the Trump administration in 2019.