Judge Vacates Oil and Gas Leases on 145,000 Acres in Montana

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday vacated 287 oil and gas leases on almost 150,000 acres of land in Montana, ruling that the Trump administration had improperly issued the leases to energy companies in 2017 and 2018.

The judge, Brian Morris of the United States District Court for the District of Montana, said the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately take into account the environmental impacts of the drilling. In particular, Judge Morris found that the officials had not accounted for the drilling’s impact on regional water supplies and the global impact that the increased drilling would have on climate change.

The decision is at least the third such legal loss that criticized the Trump administration for failing to consider the cumulative impacts of expanding fossil fuel production on the warming of the planet.

Judge Morris wrote that in issuing the leases, the Trump administration’s failure to provide the legally required environmental analyses “largely relates to the absence of analysis rather than to a flawed analysis. In other words, the Court does not fault B.L.M. for providing a faulty analysis of cumulative impacts or impacts to groundwater, it largely faults B.L.M. for failing to provide any analysis.”

Judge Morris sent the case back to the Bureau of Land Management and ordered the agency to perform the legally required environmental analyses before reissuing the leases.

Derrick Henry, a spokesman for the bureau, wrote in an email: “With all due respect, we disagree with the Court’s conclusion, and the B.L.M. stands by its analysis in following the letter of the law to issue oil and gas leases in Montana. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this dispute and despite the attempts of radical, special interest groups, the Department and the B.L.M. will continue to work toward ensuring America’s energy independence while preserving a healthy environment.”

Efforts by President Trump to deliver on his campaign promises to help the oil, gas and coal industries and roll back President Barack Obama’s signature environmental policies have repeatedly been blocked by the courts. Many have been denied for reasons similar to those given by Judge Morris in Friday’s decision: The administration did not follow correct legal protocol in justifying its actions.

In particular, Judge Morris followed other federal judges and cited the failure of the Trump administration to follow the provisions of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA. It requires the federal government to perform analyses of both the immediate local environmental impact of drilling and infrastructure projects and broader, cumulative effects of increased fossil fuel pollution on the planet.

In recent years courts have interpreted that requirement as a mandate to study the effects of allowing more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. In 2018, a federal court in New Mexico also concluded that, under NEPA, the Bureau of Land Management was required to consider the cumulative climate impacts of its oil and gas leasing decisions. In 2019, a federal court in Washington, D.C., reached the same conclusion.

“The nature of climate change is that we’re dealing with death by a thousand cuts. These decisions are saying you have to add up the impact of all of those cuts,” said Kyle Tisdel, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that argued against the administration in the Montana lease case.

Earlier this year, the White House rolled out a series of proposed changes to NEPA, under which consideration of the cumulative impacts on climate change of some projects would no longer be required.

“The changes that Trump has proposed to NEPA are not in place yet,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, “but if they were, Judge Morris would not have been able to find that B.L.M. was in violation of the law.”