Lawsuit challenges legitimacy of Utah oil and gas leases issued under ‘rushed’ Trump policy
The Trump Administration’s policy of ‘American energy dominance’ is backfiring and hindering U.S. oil and gas production, the lawsuit claims
The energy policies of former President Donald Trump are being scrutinized in a recent lawsuit that claims some oil and gas leases issued in Utah during the administration’s term bypassed environmental review and are unlawful.
Filed on Friday in Central Utah’s U.S. District Court by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the 50-page complaint challenges the legitimacy of 145 oil and gas leases issued through the Bureau of Land Management’s Moab and Vernal field offices. The leases are mostly in the Uinta Basin and the Book Cliffs, two of the most oil and gas producing regions in Utah, and cover nearly 215,325 acres.
The leases were issued in 2018 and 2019, a period where the Trump administration “sought to lease as much public lands as possible for oil and gas development, as quickly as possible, and with as little public involvement and environmental analysis as possible,” the lawsuit alleges.
Under Trump, “the number of leases BLM offered for sale in Utah increased more than seven-fold compared to a similar timeframe during the Obama administration,” the complaint reads.
In doing so, the complaint says the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects and seek public comment before starting projects.
“Under Trump, they tried to fully eliminate public participation,” said Landon Newell, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA. “That entirely backfired ... this is just one example of how the Trump administration policy went off the rails.”
Despite the Trump administration aggressively pursuing “American energy dominance,” its attempt to bypass environmental regulations has in some cases backfired, and slowed oil and gas production, the complaint argues.
Newell pointed to several instances where leases sold under the Trump administration were later pulled because the BLM’s environmental analysis was ruled incomplete, including one case in 2020 where an Idaho judge voided nearly 1 million acres. In Utah, Newell said, the BLM has already pulled hundreds of leases that amount to roughly 300,000 acres.
The lawsuit also contends that the BLM did not consider the impact some of the leases might have on sage-grouse habitat and the Graham’s and White River Beardtongue, perennial, flowering plants.
“We think this lawsuit has a lot of merit, and we’re just pushing the agency to closely look at the decisions that the prior administration made through the lens of this ‘energy dominance agenda’ that really, across the board, backfired,” said Newell.
Of the 145 leases in question, just one has actually been drilled, according to the complaint and data from the BLM. It’s emblematic of what Newell calls “lease speculation,” where a company will purchase a lease from the bureau, but never actually drills.
Sometimes, that’s so a company can bolster its portfolio — if it can boast 200,000 leased acres in Utah, it looks good to investors and prospective buyers.
“They would just hold onto them in the hopes that some bigger operator would come in and buy them out,” Newell said.
And in the past, leases were so cheap that it would cost companies next to nothing to acquire land. Prior to the Inflation Reduction Act, a company could lease land for $1.50. Rates have gone up since the act was passed.
According to a data analysis from SUWA, “in Utah less than half of the leases that have been issued statewide have actually been drilled,” Newell said, arguing that simply leasing land can hinder conservation efforts.
“Even though the lease hasn’t been drilled, the mere idea that sometime in the unknown future an operator may or may not drill here is enough reason for the agency to not protect the area,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management has not yet responded to a request for comment.