The Biden administration’s extended delay of onshore oil and gas leasing in the U.S. is illegal, attorneys for the state of Wyoming and industry groups argued Friday in a federal courtroom in Cheyenne.
Attorneys representing the state of Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance told U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl that the absence of new onshore oil and gas leasing under the Department of the Interior violates statutory requirements set by Congress.
At minimum, said Travis Jordan, Wyoming’s counsel, the Mineral Leasing Act requires that the federal government hold a lease sale four times each year.
“The floor is quarterly lease sales, and the ceiling is as the (Interior) Secretary deems necessary,” Jordan said.
The Department of the Interior has not held an onshore lease sale since President Joe Biden took office. It is currently moving forward with a lease sale scheduled for June in an effort to comply with a court order to resume quarterly sales issued in a separate, but similar, case moving through a federal court in Louisiana.
According to the agency, it has had no choice but to postpone the lease sales planned for previous quarters. First, a November 2020 court decision declared its environmental review process inadequate. Then, a temporary court order in February — just as the agency said it was preparing to announce a first-quarter lease sale — barred federal officials from using an updated estimate of climate harms in agency analyses and, had the order not been reversed, would have required them to redo parts of the environmental review.
The state of Wyoming and the Western Energy Alliance believe the Department of the Interior overstepped its bounds and don’t think its justifications will hold up to scrutiny.
So far, no challenge to the agency’s actions on oil and gas leasing has been decided in federal court. Wyoming’s case was among the first in the country to reach oral arguments.
Much of the focus Friday was on the wording of a single sentence of the century-old law: “Lease sales shall be held for each State where eligible lands are available at least quarterly,” the Mineral Leasing Act reads, “and more frequently if the Secretary of the Interior determines such sales are necessary.”
At the heart of the dispute lay questions about how past administrations defined “eligible” and “available,” what those terms were intended to mean and how much authority over leasing decisions they afforded the Secretary of the Interior.
The agency’s attorney, Michael Sawyer, said that as long the environmental review of the proposed parcels — a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act — wasn’t finished, “there were no eligible and available lands” for the federal government to lease.
“How far does that discretion go?” Skavdahl asked Michael Freedman, an attorney who spoke after Sawyer on behalf of the conservation groups involved in the case. “At what point does the continual pause and review exceed what is reasonable and rational, and who says when it is?”
Mark Barron, who represented the Western Petroleum Alliance, argued that it was the federal government’s responsibility to make sure its environmental reviews were ready in time for quarterly lease sale.
But Freedman told Skavdahl that the current circumstances are the product of reasonable and rational decision-making by the Department of the Interior, adding, “there’s a complicated set of rules here that were designed to protect the public interest, and that’s what (the agency) is attempting to do.”