A federal judge in Idaho has tossed out oil and gas leases on nearly a million acres of public land, lashing the Trump administration’s “arbitrary and capricious” policy of cutting off public input on environmental protections.
The federal Bureau of Land Management “jettisoned prior processes, practices, and norms in favor of changes that emphasized economic maximization — to the detriment, if not outright exclusion of ... opportunities for the public to contribute to the decision-making process affecting the management of public lands,” wrote U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush in his decision Thursday.
The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed Project on behalf of the greater sage grouse, which supports hundreds of other species across the West.
The ruling affects some $125 million worth of leases issued by the BLM in 2018 on more than 1,300 square miles of federal lands in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. The total contested area affecting the sage grouse, however, includes some 67 million acres across 11 Western states. Bush’s ruling could affect future leases on that land as well.
The BLM issued a memo in early 2018 to speed up lease approvals by reducing the amount of time for public input and protest, which Bush characterized as “edict in nature.” The BLM “inescapably intended to reduce and even eliminate public participation in the future decision-making process,” he added, calling the effort “substantially invalid.”
Bush reinstated requirements that call for a 30-day public comment and protest period. The Trump administration had unilaterally reduced the time to 10 days.
“This administration has been relentless in its efforts to cut the public out of public lands decision-making, starting in 2018,” said Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project. “The sage grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species will benefit from [this] win.”
“This is an enormous victory for greater sage grouse and hundreds of other animals and plants that depend on this dwindling habitat,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The judge confirmed that it’s illegal to silence the public to expand fossil-fuel extraction. It’s a win for millions of acres of our beautiful public lands and a major blow to the Trump administration’s corrupt efforts to serve corporate polluters.”
Bush conceded that voiding the leases is economically “significant” because the government will now have to refund the money. But allowing the leases to stand would simply be incentive for federal officials to approve illegal projects, convinced they would be “too massive to unwind,” he wrote.
Justice Department officials are reviewing the ruling before deciding whether to appeal.
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