Judge halts new BLM rules affecting sage grouse habitat in oil and gas lease areas on public land

Controversial rules designed to protect the sage grouse habitat in eleven states from oil and gas drilling produced a federal judge’s ruling that sided with environmentalists.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush issued a ruling that halted implementation of the Trump administration policy that curtailed the public participation in the oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands. The ruling affects future oil and gas lease sales in greater sage grouse habitat which covers 67 million acres in eleven Western states.

Judge Bush’s ruling means the the Bureau of Land Management cannot enforce the policy changes pending a final ruling by the court. So lease sales scheduled for December now must include 30-day public comment and administrative protest periods.

Environmentalists who sued argued that the BLM was cutting the public out of oil and gas decision making.

In January the BLM issued an “instruction memorandum” directing field offices to accelerate oil and gas leasing on public lands, in part by curtailing environmental review and eliminating mandatory public comment periods. The motion for preliminary injunction, filed by Advocates for the West on behalf of Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenged the policy as an unlawful attempt to eliminate public involvement in BLM leasing decisions.

In his ruling, the judge said there was significant evidence that the BLM was intentionally shutting the public out. “The record contains significant evidence indicating that BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands,” Bush said.

The court’s order will affect public land lease sales currently scheduled for December in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.