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Court Ruling Voids Oil/Gas Leases in Sage-Grouse Habitat

The number of greater sage grouse, a threatened species, has dropped from 16 million a century ago to less than 500,000 today in Utah and other Western states. (KerryHargrove/Adobe Stock)
The number of greater sage grouse, a threatened species, has dropped from 16 million a century ago to less than 500,000 today in Utah and other Western states. (KerryHargrove/Adobe Stock)
March 2, 2020

CEDAR CITY, Utah -- A federal judge has voided 1 million acres of oil and gas leases in Utah and other Western states, saying the federal government illegally limited public comment. Conservation groups joined forces to sue the Bureau of Land Management after it used a Trump administration rule to streamline environmental reviews and cut the time period for public input on the leases.

Attorney Talasi Brooks, staff attorney with the Western Watersheds Project, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the BLM changed the rules to stifle public participation.

"In this case, their efforts to streamline the process came at the expense of transparency and being accountable to the public," Brooks said.

A BLM spokesman called the rule changes "common-sense adjustments" to regulations on how minerals are taken from federal lands. He declined to say if the agency would appeal.

The ruling also applies to the greater sage-grouse habitat across 67 million acres in 11 Western states. Experts say there may be fewer than 500,000 sage-grouse left.

Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling may be too little, too late.

"That's a bird that is, unfortunately, in steep decline - in large part due to oil and gas development in the West," McKinnon said.

Brooks said federal law requires that in order to later challenge an agency's actions, groups and individuals must participate in the public comment period. She called the rule change a thinly veiled attempt to limit court challenges to controversial decisions.

"A lot of times, the public's input actually will result in better agency decisions," Brooks said.

She added the ruling is part of a broader lawsuit by conservation groups and others challenging the BLM's program for leasing land for oil and gas production.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - UT