The Wilderness Society Pressures the Trump Administration to Measure the Climate Impacts From Oil and Gas Leasing

The environmental non-profit estimates that recent federal oil and gas leases will produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the European Union emits in a year.
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Carrizo Plain National Monument in California is run by the Bureau of Land Management.

An oil company's plan to build a new oil well and pipeline in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in California was recently blocked. The Bureau of Land Management's state office agreed with conservation groups that the plans did not comply with federal environmental laws.

In the last two years, the United States has sold enough oil and gas leases to produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the European Union produces in a year. That's according to a report published this week by the The Wilderness Society.

Those emissions could have a significant impact on the climate, and recent lawsuits around the country are calling out the Trump administration for failing to measure the environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling.

How Did the Report Get Its Numbers?

The conservation advocacy group that released the report looked at federal oil and gas lease sales on public lands and offshore between January of 2017 and April of 2019. Location-specific federal data was used to estimate the potential greenhouse gas emissions that would be caused by extracting and burning the fossil fuels from those leases.

Basing its measurements on standard emission factors used by the Environmental Protection Agency, The Wilderness Society found that the nearly 4,000 parcels sold at lease sales during that time period would produce a quantity of greenhouse gases equal to between 854 million and 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Onshore leases account for just over half of those estimated emissions, while offshore oil and gas leases make up the remaining 44 percent.

The energy and climate change program director at The Wilderness Society, Chase Huntley, accused the administration of mismanaging public lands. "Our shared public lands and waters are aggravating the global climate crisis when they should be a part of the solution," he said in a press release.

What's Happening in the Courts?

Across the country, a string of lawsuits to block the sale of oil and gas leases have been brought against the federal government. Most recently, a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix challenges the Bureau of Land Management's decision to lease more than 4,000 acres of land in eastern Arizona for oil and gas extraction. The lawsuit, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians, accuses the BLM of violating federal law by not conducting an environmental review when it approved the leases.

In March, a federal judge in Wyoming admonished the BLM in a different lawsuit for failing to address climate change impacts when it leased 300,000 acres of Wyoming land to oil and gas companies in 2015 and 2016. The judge's ruling didn't rescind those leases, but did block further development in the area until the BLM has evaluated the potential climate change impact of leasing the parcels.

In the Wyoming case, the judge even ruled that the BLM's failure to quantify greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas drilling when the lands were leased violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

What Would Stopping Federal Leasing Mean for U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Multiple democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential race have said they would ban new drilling on public lands, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. But how much would a ban on new oil and gas leases affect the U.S.'s greenhouse gas emissions?

A study released last year from the Stockholm Environment Institute found that a ban on new and renewed leases for oil and gas production on U.S. public lands and waters could reduce global emissions by 280 million tons annually by 2030, cutting the U.S.'s emissions down by 5 percent.

That study didn't take into account the vast quantity of new leases that have already taken place in 2018 and 2019, however. In 2018, the BLM held 28 oil and gas lease sales and broke all previous revenue records for onshore leasing.

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