Climate groups are using the Endangered Species Act to try to stop drilling

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

Using a new legal argument based on the Endangered Species Act, the groups argue that oil burned from a well drilled in Wyoming is adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that is warming the planet and devastating people. coral reefs in Florida, polar bears in the Arctic and monk seals in Hawaii.

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

“Science is now unfortunately pretty clear that climate change is a disaster for the planet in every way, including endangered species,” said Brett Hartl, director of government affairs at the Center for Biological. Diversity. He is leading the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

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

A Home Office spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

Oil and gas industry officials noted that for every drilling permit issued, the government already conducts environmental analyzes and opponents have multiple opportunities to challenge decisions. Industry officials said the lawsuit was a backdoor effort to curb fossil fuel development and would hurt the economy.

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

“They’re trying to use the courts to starve Americans of energy and drive up prices because they can’t convince Congress to change the law,” she said. “Shutting down federal oil and natural gas does nothing to address climate change, it just shifts production to private land or overseas.”

The International Energy Agency, the world’s top energy agency, has said nations must stop developing new oil and gas fields and building new coal-fired power plants if global warming is to stay 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 keep his campaign promise to end new oil and gas drilling leases. Mr. Biden moved early in his presidency to suspend new leases, but legal challenges from Republican-run states and the oil industry have thwarted that effort.

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

The deal faces long odds, but experts have called it an ambitious effort that could force the government to rethink how it assesses the climate damage potential of each new drilling permit.

The lawsuit is about invalidating rulings that rely on a 2008 legal opinion written by David Bernhardt, who was chief counsel at the Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush and would later lead the agency in the Trump administration. Mr Bernhardt said the Home Office is under no obligation to study the impact on an endangered plant or animal of a proposed action that would add carbon admissions to the atmosphere .

“Science cannot say that a small additional increase in global temperature that might be produced by a contemplated action would manifest itself in the location of a listed species or its habitat,” Bernhardt wrote at the era.

This position is still largely valid, said scientists and environmentalists. But they also said it’s an impossible standard – like demanding to know which pack of cigarettes triggered a smoker’s lung cancer.

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

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

Jessica A. Wentz, senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said the idea that a clear line between pollution and peril is necessary is “a common misrepresentation in climate science. that is frequently used to justify inaction on climate change”. .”

The question of whether climate change is increasing the risk of extinction for green sea turtles, Florida deer and other species is settled, she said. The real test should be whether the proposed drilling would add so many greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as to affect a species, Ms Wentz said.

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

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

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

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

In an interview, Bernhardt said his legal opinion and an underlying memo from the director of the United States Geological Survey “were written with an incredible amount of hard work and understanding of law and science.”

Mark D. Myers, who served as USGS director in 2008 and authored a memo — outlining the challenges of linking emissions to their consequences — that helped form the basis of Mr. Bernhardt, accepted. At the time, the administration reviewed the opinion with the agency’s top scientists, he said.

Mr Myers said he believed fossil fuel emissions posed a serious threat to the planet. But he described the Endangered Species Act as a complex law and the “wrong vehicle to accomplish a change in our global emissions patterns”.

With a midterm election looming and Republicans blaming Democrats for record gas prices, the case could force the Biden administration into another high-profile debate over the future of drilling it isn’t looking forward to. to have, said Holly D. Doremus, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Right now is a pretty uncomfortable time for any administration to say, ‘We’re reducing the availability of fossil fuels,'” she said.

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