SALT LAKE CITY — Independent Western oil and gas producers, joined by the North Dakota Petroleum Council, are suing the federal government over sage grouse management plans they say do an end run around the public process and aren't based on good science.
The lawsuit filed Thursday by the Western Energy Alliance, which includes producers in Utah, adds another layer of litigation to the hotly contested land-use management plans covering 165 million acres across the West.
Utah, Idaho and several groups are already suing the government over the revisions to 98 land-use management plans carried out by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance's vice president of governmental affairs, said the plans ignore protections incorporated into individual state plans that were crafted after years of work, collaboration and research, and instead institute arbitrary restrictions.
"By ignoring good science, the agencies are exaggerating the impact of oil and natural gas development on sage grouse, and failing to recognize that oil and natural gas development coexists with sage grouse conservation,” Sgamma said. “The draconian measures go well beyond reasonable mitigation of impact. We are disappointed BLM and the Forest Service persist with top-down, centralized management of sage grouse on public lands that discourages more effective Western efforts.”
The suit, filed in federal court in North Dakota, asserts the plans close 2.8 million acres of federal public lands to new oil and gas development and impact another 31 million acres due to surface restrictions.
At the same time, four major renewable energy transmission projects — including two that cut into portions of Utah — are exempted from the restrictions imposed on other developments that might occur in priority habitat areas, even though the federal government acknowledges there will be impacts, the suit said.
The alliance, representing 450 oil and gas companies, said the federal agencies incorporated buffer and spacing requirements, as well as restrictions on surface disturbance, that were not part of the public review process and bypassed formal rule-making.
In addition, inconsistent standards are being invoked from state to state, with some states cut out of sage grouse management strategies altogether, the suit says. North Dakota, it points out, has the most leased oil and gas acreage within priority management areas but lacks any "adaptive management" strategy to give it some flexibility.
The suit also asserts that the plans remove the BLM as the sole authority over stipulations made to oil and gas leases and instead delegates that decision-making to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies, which contravenes the public process.
Oil and gas producers are challenging the sage grouse management plans in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Utah.
The plans were released last year and are part of an effort to save the imperiled, chicken-size bird, which was petitioned for protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced last September that conservation successes achieved over the last decade or more kept the bird from the endangered designation — at least for now — but industry and conservative politicians have argued the plans are just as restrictive.