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Environmentalists sue after the White House resumed sales of oil and gas leases

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit this week claiming that the federal government broke environmental laws when it resumed sales of oil and gas leases on public land in June. The Biden administration has paused quarterly sales for climate concerns. Wyoming Public Radio's Caitlin Tan has more.

CAITLIN TAN, BYLINE: Southwest Wyoming is home to one of the top producing natural gas fields in the country. Jonah Energy's vice president, Paul Ulrich, is giving a tour. Some antelope and cows graze in the distance.

Are those wild horses?

PAUL ULRICH: Sure are.

TAN: Oh, wow.

ULRICH: (Laughter).

TAN: But mostly, one sees hundreds of natural gas well pads checkered across the land. The field feels pretty calm and quiet. Driving down a gravel road, Ulrich says that's a stark difference from 15 years ago during the gas drilling boom.

ULRICH: We had 18 rigs running, thousands of individuals out here working on behalf of the field. It was, at times, overwhelming and Exciting.

TAN: There's now just one active drilling rig in the area. But there are plans to steadily expand. Ulrich says new oil and gas lease sales are crucial.

ULRICH: Any reduction of viable leases, you know, could result in less production, less tax revenue, less jobs down the line.

TAN: Until this spring, lease sales were paused for 15 months. President Biden did so on the basis of concerns about climate change. In previous administrations, lease sales happened four times a year. But following a court order, the administration announced it would hold lease sales this spring in nine states, which led to disappointment from many environmental groups. Dan Ritzman is with the Sierra Club.

DAN RITZMAN: As we do the important work to move away from oil, the first thing we need to do is to stop looking for new oil.

TAN: And the extractive industry has issues with the sales, too. Here's the Petroleum Association of Wyoming's president, Pete Obermueller.

PETE OBERMUELLER: The lease sale itself is smoke and mirrors from the Biden administration. They did less than the bare minimum in order to comply with that court order.

TAN: Meaning, only about 20% of public land that the industry hoped for is up for auction. And royalty rates that companies have to pay were increased by 50%. The American Petroleum Institute says the changes create new barriers that discourage companies from investing in drilling on public lands. Obermueller says the leases that are being offered aren't that useful.

OBERMUELLER: Many of them are in some of the most remote, most difficult places to reach.

TAN: Meanwhile, leases that the industry purchased under the Trump administration are up for more environmental review after a court settlement earlier this year. Jeremy Nichols is with WildEarth Guardians, which led the lawsuits.

JEREMY NICHOLS: This opens the door to take into consideration things like climate science, the public interest and whether it makes sense for public lands to be sacrificed for more oil and gas extraction.

TAN: It's unclear whether the Biden administration plans to return to quarterly lease sales. Two related court cases that would require that are pending.

For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Tan in Pinedale, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caitlin Tan