Since 2015, the environmental plaintiff industry has been filing sweeping lawsuits challenging the federal onshore oil and gas program. The scope of these lawsuits, and the judicial relief requested, raise significant constitutional issues on plaintiff organizations’ legal viability to bring such programmatic challenges.
Examples include a lawsuit against every single federal oil and gas lease sale in five states dating back to 2017 and a challenge to every single drilling permit approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in New Mexico and Wyoming under President Biden’s administration.
At bottom, these challenges are really efforts to have the judicial branch of government dictate energy policy decisions that are reserved solely for the executive and legislative branches of government. The judicial relief sought by these legal challenges (e.g., halting the leasing and development of federal oil and gas resources) implicate the separation of powers of the three branches of government that is a foundational principle of the U.S. Constitution.
Two recent federal court decisions by Judge Chutkan in Washington D.C. recognized this significant constitutional issue and significantly limited plaintiffs’ ability to bring these types of programmatic lawsuits.
In Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Case No. 1:22-cv-01716-TSC (D.D.C. Nov. 1, 2023) (decision available here), Judge Chutkan dismissed a lawsuit challenging every single drilling permit approved by the Buruea of Land Management under President Biden’s Administration in New Mexico and Wyoming, more than 4,000 permits.
The Court found that the plaintiff organizations failed to meet their standing requirements under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to bring such a challenge because, among other things, Plaintiff organizations failed to show any individual members utilized any lands with a geographic nexus to any specific wells or drilling sites at issue.
In dismissing this lawsuit, the Court insightfully addressed the broader underlying issue of this legal challenge, explaining that “allowing plaintiffs to aggregate agency actions and assert a geographic nexus with the general areas those actions affect” would generally violate the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. The Court explained further that under this bedrock constitutional principle, “[t]he judiciary cannot exercise general legal oversight on the Executive branch.” Plaintiffs filed an appeal of the Court’s dismissal.
Similarly, in a ruling on a separate case, Judge Chutkan denied a motion to enjoin permitting and development of federal oil and gas resources in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming under a programmatic development plan. See Powder River Basin Resource Council v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, Case No. 22-cv-2696-TSC, (D.D.C. Nov. 6, 2023) (decision available here). In denying plaintiffs’ motion, the Court focused again on plaintiffs’ failure to demonstrate site-specific use of the lands where the drilling permits are located, and failed to show that enjoining development would provide relief to their members alleged use of those affected areas. The Court found that plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to demonstrate they had standing under Article III of the Constitution to invoke the court’s jurisdiction and obtain their requested relief from the court.
While the environmental plaintiff industry will continue to bring legal challenges against the federal oil and gas program, these two recent decisions provide a cogent roadmap on how to oppose these lawsuits at the outset to get these types of cases dismissed or significantly narrowed.