The Trump administration violated environmental and planning laws when it OK’d a Delaware-sized oil and gas field in Converse County, endangering raptors and 54 greater sage grouse breeding-ground leks, two conservation groups allege in a lawsuit.
Powder River Basin Resource Council and Western Watersheds Project filed the complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C. last month, claiming then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt rigged the approval of the 5,000-well project “to relieve the fossil fuel industry from federal environmental safeguards.” The 68-page filing names the Interior Department and U.S. Bureau of Land Management as defendants and seeks to reverse the approval.
Bernhardt authorized 1,500 well pads, 2,900 miles of pipeline, 1,970 miles of roads and 1,500 miles of electrical lines for a development that could generate 69.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses a year. The development across 1.5 million acres of private and public land over 10 years would produce 1.2% of the country’s annual release of the pollutant, the suit contends.
The suit comes at a time when the country’s energy future is clouded by the war in Ukraine, domestic inflation, environment-altering climate change and the legacy of Trump’s energy independence policy. The firing of a federal environmental specialist who objected to environmental shortcomings of the Converse County Oil & Gas Project tainted the project, a government-employee-watchdog group says and conservationists are calling for strict scrutiny of the Biden administration’s new proposal to lease another 251,087 acres for oil and gas development in Wyoming.
Fossil-fuel supporters, however, reject assertions that the approval of the Converse County project in 2020 was in any way rushed or deleterious to wildlife.
The project’s environmental review, Ryan McConnaughey, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming told WyoFile, is “a poster child for what thoughtful and collaborative work should be.”
Bernhardt’s authorization allows an “unprecedented level of development,” creating significant impacts to residents and wildlife, Converse County denizen and PRBRC board member Maria Katherman said in a statement. Western Watersheds believes the BLM “tossed aside all the usual and customary wildlife habitat protections” in a “stampede to fast-track fossil fuel production in northeast Wyoming,” Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement that labeled the development a “fossil-fuel boondoggle.”
The conservationists asked the court to undo the approval and declare that the government has the authority to regulate wells on private property, and air-polluting discharges — two elements Bernhardt claimed he couldn’t control. The groups also target recently issued individual well-drilling permits and may ask the court to halt development as the suit is considered.
Approval of the development followed a review that included a “complete analysis of greenhouse gas,” McConnaughey said. The plan “maintains all sage grouse protections under the Wyoming sage grouse protection strategy and fully complies with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as interpreted by the Obama administration,” he said.
Development will be a boon to local, state and national coffers, he said. The BLM said the project would create 8,000 jobs and $18 billion to $28 billion in federal revenues alone. The environmental review considered the impacts and benefits over a 10-year field life.
Among the five claims made in the suit, the conservationists pointed first to an inadequate analysis of environmental consequences. Those include inaccurate estimates of groundwater needed to develop the field and a “misleading and incomplete” review of air pollution.
The suit faults the government for postponing site-specific and detailed review of individual wells and then approving 377 applications to drill those wells without further and necessary analysis.
The Converse County Oil and Gas Project violates federal planning rules by not complying with the BLM’s own plans to preserve greater sage grouse, including by limiting areas scarred by development and making up for ground lost to construction, the lawsuit contends. By discarding rules that keep development away from raptor nests during sensitive breeding and nesting seasons, federal agencies violated their duties to avoid “unnecessary or undue degradation,” the complaint states.
Finally, Bernhardt claimed he had no authority to regulate pollution and other impacts from wells drilled on private land, even if those wells extract oil and gas under federal property. The two groups called Bernhardt’s assertion “legally erroneous.”
Conservationists’ objections to the now-issued individual drilling permits and the process to obtain them are hollow, McConnaughey said. “I think there’s an opportunity for these people to protest those individual permits,” he said, “yet these groups have decided to challenge the whole project.”
He challenged protests regarding greater sage grouse and nesting raptors, saying those birds are adequately protected by the development plan. BLM standards had called for protecting raptor nests even when they are not occupied. Bernhardt’s approval altered that.
“This says that only active nests need to be protected,” McConnaughey said. If a well pad or other construction is taking place near a nest that is not active, and then a bird braves the disturbance to nest, work would stop.
“If one of those nests does become active in the meantime, then activities need to stop,” he said. “And so, it still protects those active nests, even if they were not active at the start of the project.”
Regarding the potential loss of 54 greater sage grouse breeding leks, he said the figure represented a worst-case scenario. Conservationists demand such worst-case accounting, he said, then turn around and use it against approval.
“Sage grouse populations in northeast Wyoming are already considered to be nearing an extinction vortex, and this massive expansion of wellfields, industrial disturbance and habitat fragmentation could well finish off the sage grouse in the region,” his statement said. That would put the Great Plains population “at serious risk of extinction.”
The government diminished the amount of expected air-pollution in a process strongly criticized by its own Environmental Protection Agency, according to the complainants. EPA officials wrote that the approval analysis for the oilfield employed an inaccurate “alternative approach” to calculating pollution.
The BLM fired an employee whistleblower after his criticism during the approval. Environmental specialist Walter Loewen sought to protect nesting raptors during the writing of the Environmental Impact Statement that was the basis of the approval.
But he was harassed by his bosses and unfairly sacked, according to Public Employees for Environmental Ethics. Loewen appealed his firing but lost his case in front of an administrative judge.
Conservationists continue to scrutinize the leasing of federal lands for energy development, including the recently proposed Wyoming lease sale, that would take place in early 2023. Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Communications Director Alan Rogers said in a statement the Interior Department should update its leasing policies to better manage public land for wildlife, recreation, Indigenous cultural sites and more. Muley Fanatics Foundation President and CEO Josh Coursey called for wildlife protection and taxpayer fairness.
— Dustin Bleizeffer contributed to this report.