Could a law protecting endangered animals stop new oil drilling?

WASHINGTON – A coalition of environmental groups sued the Biden administration on Wednesday for failing to consider the damage to endangered species from emissions from oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Using a new legal argument based on the Endangered Species Act, the groups argue that burning oil from a well drilled in Wyoming adds to atmospheric carbon dioxide that is warming the planet and destroying Florida’s coral reefs, arctic polar bears and Hawaiian monk seals. .

If the coalition is successful, more than 3,500 drilling permits issued during the Biden administration could be revoked and future permits could be even more difficult.

“The science is now unfortunately very clear that climate change is a disaster for the planet in every way, including endangered species,” said Brett Hartle, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity. She is a pioneer suit Filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

“We need to stop the autopilot-like approach to leasing fossil fuels on public lands,” he said.

An Interior Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the case.

Oil and gas industry officials note that for every drilling permit issued, the government actually conducts environmental analyzes and that opponents have multiple opportunities to challenge decisions. Industry officials said the lawsuit was a covert attempt to limit fossil fuel development and would hurt the economy.

“They won’t be satisfied until the federal oil and natural gas shutdown is completely shut down, but that option is not supported by law,” said Kathleen Sjama, chair of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies.

She said: “They are trying to use the courts to deprive Americans of energy and raise prices because they can not persuade Congress to change the law.” “Federal oil and natural gas shutdowns do nothing to tackle climate change but only shift production to private lands or offshore.”

The International Energy Agency, the world’s leading energy agency, said countries must stop developing new oil and gas fields and building new coal-fired power plants if global warming is to remain within relatively safe limits.

The lawsuit is the latest skirmish by environmentalists who want to keep fossil fuels “in the ground” and force President Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to end new oil and gas exploration contracts. Biden moved in the early days of his presidency to suspend new leases, but legal challenges from Republican-led states and the oil industry have thwarted that effort.

Early next week, the Biden administration is expected to hold the first onshore lease sales to explore for public lands in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and more than 131,000 acres in Wyoming alone. The government has also opened 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for drilling.

The case faces long prospects, but experts describe it as an ambitious effort that may force the government to rethink how it assesses the potential for climate damage from each new drilling permit.

The lawsuit turns on invalidation decisions based on a 2008 legal opinion written by David Bernhard, who was the chief adviser to the Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush and who would later run the agency in the Trump administration. Mr. Bernhard announced that the Home Office is not obligated to study the impact on an endangered plant or animal of a proposed measure that would add carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

Bernhardt wrote at the time: “Science cannot say that a slight rise in global temperature would result from a procedure under study that would manifest itself in the location or habitat of the listed species.”

Scientists and environmental experts have said that this position is still largely correct. But they also said it’s an impossible criterion – like asking to know what pack of cigarettes causes lung cancer in a smoker.

said John C. Wiens, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, “It’s a completely wrong way to think about it.” He and other researchers published a study The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 found that a third of plant and animal species could disappear within 50 years due to climate change.

“More emissions, more warming puts species at risk,” Dr. Wiens said. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t know that this particular well in Wyoming led to extinction. We know what the general pattern is.”

Jessica A. said: Wentz, senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabine Center for Climate Change Law, argues that the notion that the clear line from pollution to hazard is “a common misrepresentation of climate science often used to justify inaction on climate change.”

She said the question of whether climate change was increasing the extinction risk for green sea turtles, Florida’s primate deer and other species had been settled. Ms Wentz said the real test should be whether the proposed drilling would add to the atmosphere such a large amount of greenhouse gases to affect the species.

The lawsuit notes that, according to analysis by the Bureau of Land Management, oil and gas production from public lands emits 9 percent of US greenhouse gases and 1 percent of global emissions. The lawsuit estimates that nearly 3,500 drilling permits approved under the Biden administration will release up to 600 million tons of greenhouse gases over the life of the wells.

Another law, the National Environmental Policy Act, requires the government to study the impacts on climate change through proposed projects, but does not obligate an agency to reject a bridge, pipeline or highway because of the consequences.

Under the Endangered Species Act, if a project is found to endanger a plant or animal, there is a stronger assumption that the agency should reconsider the project, experts said.

So simply requiring the government to understand the effects of rising emissions on a species could essentially slow or block drilling permits, environmental groups said.

Bernhard said in an interview that his legal opinion and a key note from the USGS director were “written with an incredible amount of work and understanding of law and science.”

Marc de Myers, who served as director of the USGS in 2008 and who wrote a memo — outlining challenges linking emissions with their consequences — agreed that helped form the basis for Mr. Bernhard’s legal opinion. At the time, the administration checked opinion with top scientists across the agency, he said.

Mr. Myers said he believes fossil fuel emissions pose a serious threat to the planet. But he called the Endangered Species Act a complex law and “a wrong way to bring about change in our global emissions patterns.”

With the midterm elections looming and Republicans blaming Democrats for record-high gas prices, the issue could force the Biden administration into a new, high-profile debate about the future of drilling it doesn’t yearn for, Holly D. said. Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Now is a very uncomfortable time for any administration to say, ‘We are working to reduce the availability of fossil fuels,'” she said.