Federal Court Blocks Generic GHG Challenges to Federal Land Leases

Environmental organizations seeking to bring judicial challenges to the climate change impacts of development projects were dealt a significant setback by a recent federal court decision. On July 30, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that those groups claiming injury from the effects of climate change caused by coal mining and combustion did not have standing to pursue those claims. This ruling, which granted summary judgment to the Department of the Interior (DOI) in WildEarth Guardians v. Salazar, could have far-reaching implications for efforts by these groups to bypass the legislative process and pursue climate change policies through federal lawsuits.

The decision in WildEarth Guardians stemmed from the efforts by this group to prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from leasing over 4,000 acres of land in Wyoming to a company that planned to conduct coal mining operations there. Before issuing its leasing decision, BLM prepared a 700-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) pursuant to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The EIS studied a variety of potential environmental issues that could be caused by the proposed mining operations, and concluded that the state of climate science did not permit the agency to assess the global climate change effect of the planned mining and ultimate combustion of the coal on the site. After completing its EIS, BLM offered the lands for lease through a competitive bid process.

WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit challenging BLM’s leasing decision, arguing, among other claims, that the analysis of climate change effects in the EIS was inadequate. Recognizing that U.S. Constitution required them to demonstrate that they had suffered an injury-in-fact that was fairly traceable to BLM’s actions, they claimed that they had recreational, aesthetic and economic interests in the areas near the leased lands and elsewhere in the American West. The ‘Guardians’ argued that the mining and burning of coal from the leased lands would lead to, among other things, “greater drought conditions; increased invasive species and insect infestations; increased fire frequency, severity, and extent; and a concordant reduction in biodiversity and sensitive species.”

The District Court concluded that the ‘Guardians’ theory of standing was fundamentally flawed in light of the “disconnect between Plaintiffs’ recreational, aesthetic, and economic interests, which are uniformly local, and the diffuse and unpredictable effects of [greenhouse gas] emissions.” In other words, the Court found that allegations of “widespread harm” from climate change were not sufficient to show that the mining of coal on the leased lands was causally linked to particular harms to their interests. Rather, “the relationship between their “localized interests” and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions would “depend on the behavior of countless third parties.” The “long chain of assumptions, suppositions, and predictive judgments required to connect Plaintiffs’ localized interests, the effects of global [greenhouse gas] emissions, and the leasing of” the BLM lands was simply “too attenuated” to support standing.

The Court did hold that the group had standing to challenge the EIS on more localized issues, such as the effects of the proposed leasing on local air quality, groundwater, and the adequacy of reclamation progress in the region. On the merits, the Court held that the EIS adequately considered all of these issues, and granted summary judgment to DOI on all counts. The decision sets a significant precedent for a large number of similar challenges to coal leasing in Wyoming and elsewhere in the west.

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