Oil/gas leases thrown out by Montana federal judge


A federal judge in Montana has thrown out hundreds of federal oil and gas leases after determining the Interior Department failed to protect sage grouse habitat.

Chief Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court in Montana in a Friday ruling struck down 440 oil and gas leases across 525 square miles in the West. Morris noted that his ruling will require the federal and state governments to return millions of dollars to lessees but said the “economic harm” was not great enough to keep the leases intact according to POLITICO

Male Greater Sage Grouse perform their mating ritual on a lake near Walden, Colo. | AP Photo

Environmentalists argued that under a 2015 conservation plan, the Bureau of Land Management should have prioritized non-habitat lands before possibly turning to leasing areas where sage grouse can live. Morris agreed, ruling that the Trump administration “undercut” the 2015 plan’s goal to prioritize for sale places the bird does not live. “The errors here occurred at the beginning of the oil and gas lease sale process, infecting everything that followed,” including each lease’s environmental analysis and BLM’s response to green groups’ protests, Morris wrote.

— Morris’ ruling “confirms that the Trump administration violated the law in bulldozing those commitments in its haste to sell off lands that are owned by all Americans to the oil and gas industry,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman.

Rising star? Morris, an Obama appointee, is quickly proving himself to be a bee in the Trump administration’s bonnet. Several key energy lawsuits have landed in his docket, and Morris has ruled several times now against Trump policies, more than the average district court judge might do in a lifetime on the bench. It helps that he’s one of just three active judges in the Montana district court, but his rulings have had wide-reaching consequences in recent years.

In 2018, Morris blocked Keystone XL construction until the federal government’s environmental review better addressed the project’s climate impacts — prompting President Donald Trump to issue a whole new approval. Then last month, Morris stopped work on Keystone again, along with any other new oil and gas pipeline in the U.S., when he struck down a key nationwide permit used by the Army Corps of Engineers. Last year, he stopped the Interior Department from resuming nationwide coal leasing until it studied the environmental impacts. And now Morris has undone hundreds of oil and gas leases over habitat protection concerns. That’s the kind of judicial record that can attract attention 1,600 miles away in Washington.