Judge Puts Kibosh on Oil & Gas Leases in Idaho Sage Grouse Country

(CN) – A federal judge ruled Thursday that the Trump administration overstepped its authority in trying to expedite oil and gas development in sage grouse habitat.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush in Idaho found the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management did not follow proper procedure or take the necessary steps when it issued new policies to change and potentially accelerate how oil and gas companies could lease public lands in Idaho. Bush said the new policy standards, known as IM 2018-034, directly hindered public involvement and several procedural errors occurred during its enactment.

Male sage grouses are seen fighting for the attention of females. (Jerret Raffety/The Rawlins Daily Times via AP, File)

One of the core questions at the heart of the dispute was whether the new standards were even intended to be a final agency action. The government claimed the changes were not intended to be set down as overly specific requirements, and instead offered only a broad and discretionary policy vision that land officials could use when making agency decisions. Because of this, officials argued, the action was not considered a final agency decision and the court could not review it.

Bush, however, found the language of the policies to be far too demanding and specific to be viewed as just a framework, and ruled that it was clear the changes were a final agency action.

“In these provisions, IM 2018-034 is much more than a general statement of policy; rather, it implements a required template for BLM’s oil and gas leasing process in language that can only be understood as ‘finally determinative of the issues or rights to which it is addressed,’” the judge, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote.

Bush ruled that as a result of the errors and the clear final intent of the new standards, IM 2018-034 must be set aside immediately and the standards originally set by the Obama administration must be reinstated until the feds follow the proper notice-and-comment procedures.

Sarah Stellberg, lead attorney for plaintiff Advocates for the West, said the ruling should serve as a stark reminder of the importance of following proper process when it comes to environmental decisions that can have serious consequences.

“This decision is a clear message to BLM that public participation and environmental reviews cannot be bypassed as ‘unnecessary burdens’ to their leasing free-for-all,” Stellberg said in an email. “This decision spares 1 million acres of public lands from shortsighted oil and gas leasing and restores the public’s right to weigh in on these leasing decisions.”

Thursday’s ruling comes amid several challenges of the oil and gas development policies by conservation and environmental groups.

Western Watershed Project and the Center for Biological Diversity originally filed a suit challenging the new guidelines almost two years ago, claiming the changes gave far too much land access to the oil industry – access that would severely harm natural wildlife.

“The Trump administration is violating bedrock environmental laws and wrongly excluding the public in trying to open every inch of our public lands to the oil and gas industry,” Laird Lucas, attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity, told Courthouse News when the initial suit was filed. “Sensitive wildlife, like the iconic sage grouse, face irreparable harm. We are asking the federal court to enforce the laws on the books and protect our magnificent public lands from these unlawful actions.”

Regarding land leases that have already been issued or those to be issued going forward, Judge Bush noted these changes are to apply only to areas where the threat to natural wildlife is at its greatest.

The ruling specially considered the needs of sage grouse, which many environmental agencies have classified as endangered in recent years. The judge outlined several key areas where sage grouse habitats would be most negatively affected by the leases and ruled oil and gas lease sales will be barred in these areas only.

Representatives from the federal government did not respond to request for immediate comment by press time regarding Thursday’s ruling, but Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior when the initial dispute began two years ago, had made it clear that energy goals connected to the oil and gas industries were of the highest priority.

“The pilot light of American energy has been re-lit by President Trump, and the president’s energy dominance strategy is paying off,” Zinke, who is no longer with the Trump administration, said in a statement at the time.

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