Oil and gas drilling projects have been temporarily suspended after a judge ruling in Wyoming found the Interior Department's consideration of climate change to be severely lacking.
Crucially, this marks the very first time the Trump administration's "energy-first" agenda has been put on hold for its failure to assess its impact on the climate.
Judge Rudolph Contreras of the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to sufficiently gauge the environmental ramifications of certain drilling projects in the state of Wyoming – a legal requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act. Combined, these drilling projects affect almost 121 hectares (300,000 acres) of land, but Contreras says the BLM has not considered how each project will contribute to the country's total carbon emissions.
"Given the national, cumulative nature of climate change, considering each individual drilling project in a vacuum deprives the agency and the public of the context necessary to evaluate oil and gas drilling on federal land before irretrievably committing to that drilling," Contreras wrote in the ruling.
The judgment follows a lawsuit submitted by two non-profits, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, challenging oil and gas lease sales issued under the Obama administration.
For now, however, the hold is only temporary – the BLM can redo its assessments so that it passes Contreras' standards. Alternatively, they may try to overturn the ruling. Indeed, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon (R) is already suggesting the state might intervene to appeal the decision, announcing "We will be exploring options and following up with our state, federal, and industry partners."
Still, it can be seen as an important step in shifting to a more climate-sensitive approach to energy production, one that sets a precedent for future lease sales in the state of Wyoming – and perhaps beyond. Needless to say, thoughts on the ruling have been mixed.
"This judge has ignored decades of legal precedent in this ruling," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a defendant in the case.
“The judge is basically asking BLM to take a wild guess on how many wells will be developed on leases, prematurely."
In stark contrast, Jeremy Nichols, climate program director at WildEarth Guardians, called it "the Holy Grail ruling we've been after".
"It calls into question the legality of oil and gas leasing that’s happening everywhere," he added.
It will no doubt come as a blow to the government, disrupting the pro-fossil fuel agenda the Trump administration has touted since stepping into the White House in 2017 – even if its full impact waits to be seen.
In the last two and a bit years, Trump has proposed the largest offshore oil and gas lease sales in US history, given the go-ahead to seismic blasting in the Atlantic, and signed an executive order overturning Obama-era policy banning drilling in the Arctic. At the tail-end of 2018, the Wilderness Society released a report revealing that over 6 million hectares (16 million acres) of onshore land had also been opened up for leasing.
Meanwhile, the administration has worked hard to undo environmental legislation instated in the final Obama years and de-regulate the fossil fuel industry. This includes (but is not limited to) reversing Obama's coal memorandum, attempting to abolish rules requiring federal agencies to consider the climate impact of their decisions, and undermining their own reports into climate change.
"Climate change, and humanity’s ability to combat it, are increasingly prominent topics of public discourse," Contreras wrote.
"This case concerns the attention the government must give climate change when taking action that may increase its effects."