Judge Orders U.S. to Resume Oil Lease Sales in North Dakota

Canceled lease sales have reportedly cost North Dakota over $100 million in revenue each year.

A pump jack for pulling oil from the ground is seen near New Town, N.D., Feb. 25, 2015. On Monday, March 27, 2023, a federal judge ordered the United States government to resume oil and gas lease sales on federal lands in North Dakota as a legal battle continues over the Biden administration's pause on the federal leasing program two years ago in an effort to combat climate change.
A pump jack for pulling oil from the ground is seen near New Town, N.D., Feb. 25, 2015. On Monday, March 27, 2023, a federal judge ordered the United States government to resume oil and gas lease sales on federal lands in North Dakota as a legal battle continues over the Biden administration's pause on the federal leasing program two years ago in an effort to combat climate change.
AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) β€” A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to resume regular oil and gas lease sales on federal lands in North Dakota, even as a legal battle continues over the Biden administration's suspension of the leasing program two years ago in an effort to combat climate change.

Hailing the ruling as a victory, North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said canceled lease sales have cost North Dakota over $100 million in revenue each year and deprived the nation of "much-needed access to oil and gas during these difficult times of high inflation and threats to our energy security," the Bismarck Tribune reported.

But the judge also denied the state's request to force the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, to hold sales that were canceled in 2021 and 2022.

"North Dakota has a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits and has met the other factors favoring a preliminary injunction," U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor wrote in his 82-page order filed Monday. "Given this preliminary stage of litigation and the incomplete administrative record, however, not all of North Dakota's requested relief is appropriate."

Last year's federal climate law included a political compromise among Democrats that was meant to ensure oil and gas lease sales by linking them to the renewable energy development that Biden has promoted. Citing that law, federal officials have proposed a June lease sale totaling 21,000 acres (8,498 hectares) in North Dakota and Montana.

But how often future lease sales will be held remains a point of contention.

U.S. Department of Justice Senior Attorney Michael Sawyer said in court documents that North Dakota's push to resume quarterly lease sales before the lawsuit was decided would be a "rush to judgment" and would subject the Bureau of Land Management to increased litigation risk from environmental conservation groups.

Department spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment on the ruling.

North Dakota's Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement that he applauds the judge's decision to require the bureau to resume "their lawfully required quarterly oil and gas lease sales."

The state is one of the nation's largest oil producers, behind Texas and New Mexico.

Burgum has bashed the White House for trying to shift the country away from fossil fuels, and praised the oil and gas industry for being a "powerhouse" and "game-changer" for the state's economy.

Coal, oil and gas are by far the largest contributors to global climate change, according to the United Nations, and have resulted in more extreme wildfires, storms, hurricanes, droughts and floods in recent years, signaling what the UN calls a "code red for humanity" that could cause trillions of dollars in damage.

In September, the Biden administration reached a legal settlement that requires the government to reexamine potential climate damages from oil and gas leases put up for sale under the Trump administration on government land in North Dakota and Montana.

Similar deals have been reached for lease sales covering thousands of square miles in public lands under the Trump and Obama administrations in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

About a quarter of U.S. fossil fuels come from federal lands and waters, making them important for industry and a target for climate activists who want to shut down leasing.

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