Climate + Energy

A Declaration of Climate Independence: Stop Sought on Public Lands Oil and Gas Sales



Drilling rigs on public lands in Wyoming.

Just before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, WildEarth Guardians moved in a big way to defend the climate, filing a brief in federal court calling on a judge to block any more auctioning off U.S. public lands for fracking.

It’s the first-ever federal court case to request a halt to the sale of public lands for oil and gas drilling and it couldn’t come at a more critical moment.

With President Trump peddling climate denial and his cronies, like Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, attempting to rollback environmental and public health safeguards to appease the fossil fuel industry, we’re pushing back harder than ever.  Not only are we digging in to keep our fossil fuels in the ground, but we’re making clear that if the government of the United States of America won’t stand up to protect the climate, we will.

The brief was filed as part of lawsuit filed last August by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, with the help of the Western Environmental Law Center.

The suit challenges a series of decisions by the U.S. Interior Department in 2015 and 2016 to auction off nearly 400,000 acres public lands for fracking in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, targeting the agency’s failure to account for and limit the climate impacts of authorizing more fossil fuel production.

The lands involved include parts of the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado, the Red Desert of southern Wyoming, and the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.


Fracking on the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado.

All told, 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to oil and gas produced from public lands and waters that are managed by the Interior Department.  These come from methane leaks from wells and pipelines, carbon from drilling rigs and trucks, pollution from processing and refining, and emissions from the ultimate burning of oil and gas.

In spite of this, Interior routinely auctions off public lands for fracking to private companies like BP and Exxon with absolutely no consideration of the climate implications.  Often, these lands are auctioned off for as little as $2.00 an acre.  Considering these decisions also leave our public lands destroyed and degraded, our waters fouled, and our air blighted, it’s completely scandalous.

In total, more than 27 million acres of public lands in the U.S. are controlled by the oil and gas industry, mostly in the American West.  That’s an area 12 times the size of Yellowstone National Park.  The state with most public lands controlled by the oil and gas industry is Wyoming, with 8.8 million acres of American lands committed to oil and gas development.

Our federal court brief makes a simple ask:  put a halt to the Interior Department’s climate denial and block the practice of illegally auctioning off public lands for fracking.

screenshot of opening brief

This request is more than reasonable.  After all, the oil and gas industry isn’t even producing from a majority of the lands it already controls.  As the Interior Department’s own statistics show, only 46% of all public lands auctioned to companies over the years are actually yielding any oil or gas.

What’s more, industry’s interest in acquiring more public lands for fracking seems tepid at best.  This past June, only 30% of all lands auctioned by Interior were actually sold.

We can’t possibly protect our climate if our federal government is going to continue handing over the rights for the oil and gas industry to drill and frack our public lands. With our lawsuit, we’ve got a chance at turning the tide.

Even in the face of Trump’s climate denial, we can and will overcome.

5 replies »