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Conservation groups and Wyoming are at odds over oil and gas leasing

Natural gas production in the Jonah Field, with the Wind River Range in the distance.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Natural gas production in the Jonah Field in Sublette County.

The leasing of public lands for oil and gas activity continues to be an extremely polarizing topic, with 17 conservation groups pushing back against the leasing in a lawsuit initiated by Wyoming and industry leaders.

The heart of the issue began back when President Biden took office in 2021 and the sales were paused nationwide due to environmental concerns, with the exception of one sale which was held this past summer. Typically the sales are held every three months.

There was a lot of legal pushback across the country, and in Dec. 2022 the state of Wyoming, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) sued the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), saying this pause was illegal and that sales need to happen every three months. They maintain that the industry needs regular sales to stay alive.

But the 17 conservation groups are defending the federal government and are intervening in the case. Tom Delehanty, a senior associate attorney for Earthjustice and is representing the groups, said the BLM can choose how often to hold sales – if at all.

“If the industry and state petitioners here got the relief that they wanted it would be a step backward and it would be turning public lands over to private interests,” Delehanty said.

The state’s and industry’s lawsuit came about just a couple months after a district judge ruled in favor of the BLM in another, albeit similar, lawsuit. The suit was specific to the pausing of the first quarter sale in 2021, and this current suit is in regards to the lack of a third quarter sale in 2022.

“We have filed this one to look at the broader impacts of requiring leasing every three months,” Ryan McConnaughey, the vice president of PAW, said. “And really what it boils down to is how long can a federal agency delay those lease sales before becoming in violation of the Mineral Leasing Act?”

And that is what the argument boils down to.

Wyoming and the industry believe the implication of the language of the federal Mineral Leasing Act is that sales must be held every three months. However, the conservation groups insist that is not required, and in fact feel it is for the greater good to limit or pause leasing.

“We are in a climate crisis, and we are at a stage where public lands need to be managed for the interest of everybody and not oil and gas industry profits,” Delehanty said. “I think we're at sort of a turning point here, in terms of U.S. energy policy, and allowing or ensuring that the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior are able to manage public lands in a way that's actually part of the climate solution in a way that they function for everybody is really critical.”

Delehanty added that there are already 9,000 existing federal drilling permits for the industry to use across the country.

Nevertheless, oil and gas remains a driving force of Wyoming’s economy, and McConnaughey said smaller companies need regular lease sales to stay afloat.

“While some companies may have leases available that they are waiting to drill for a variety of reasons, including, legal wrangling or waiting for permits,” McConnaughey said, “there are some companies that are just simply out of available leases and would need a lease sale to happen to continue their operations.”

He added that more than 400 smaller companies, which are defined by producing 2 percent or less of all oil and gas production in the state, represent about a third of Wyoming’s total production.

Delehenty pushed back on this notion, saying he thinks it still does not change the fact that the federal government should be able to hold lease sales at its discretion – which includes the public interest, not the industry interest. He added that the BLM has canceled sales prior to the Biden administration and that the industry managed to stay afloat.

“It’s dubious to say that small operators – who operate in an already volatile industry – will suffer if BLM, exercising its obligation to manage public lands for all, can choose when to lease,” Delehenty said.

Despite the initial pause, the BLM has scheduled several lease sales in the region for late spring, including more than 250,000 acres that will be offered up in Wyoming – there will be no sales in quarter one of this year.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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