The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit this week challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s June sale of oil and gas leases in parts of Nevada, including Nye County.
On June 14, the BLM offered nearly 200,000 acres of public lands in Nevada’s Battle Mountain district for fossil fuel development, including fracking. Among the affected areas are Big Smoky and Railroad valleys in Nye County, Diamond Valley in Eureka County and the Diamond, Fish Creek and Sulphur Creek mountain ranges.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the federal court district of Nevada in Reno, alleges the BLM failed to consider the potential consequences of oil drilling in the area, from contamination of critical desert water sources to increased seismic activity and emission of climate-altering greenhouse gases.
Clare Lakewood, an attorney at the center’s Climate Law Institute, said the goal of the lawsuit is to make the court rescind the sold leases and to order BLM to comply with the law if it wants to lease this land.
“Turning over northern Nevada’s public lands to big oil risks polluting the region’s air, water and soil with toxic chemicals while fueling the global climate crisis,” Lakewood said in a press release. “The Trump administration wants to turn public lands into private profits for the fossil fuel industry at the peril of local communities and wildlife.”
The lawsuit argues that the BLM sidestepped the National Environmental Protection Act in neglecting to update its environmental assessment for the sale.
Fracking concerns in Nevada
Nevada doesn’t have a fracking ban in place, and Lakewood said that’s a worry.
“Operators are nominating huge tracts of land for leasing, and the BLM is assuming that those tracts could be fracked,” Lakewood said in an email. “We’ve seen from the experiences of other states that fracking brings with it a whole range of harms, to the environment and people’s health and safety, and we don’t want to see those problems in Nevada.”
Operators inject hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, mixed with a propellant-like sand, and an array of really toxic chemicals to frack a well, including ones known to cause cancer and harm the nervous and reproductive system in humans, Lakewood said.
Some of the lease parcels are over, or right next to, wetlands and the lawsuit contends that the BLM’s assessment didn’t adequately evaluate the effects of fracking on those areas.
“Fracking could result in contamination of those wetlands, or the groundwater underlying the area, with fracking chemicals, which would absolutely devastate the populations of very rare fish and amphibian species that live in the wetlands and springs,” Lakewood said.
Lakewood further argued that Nevada isn’t in a position to waste water on fracking, as the state is grappling with water issues.
“Fracking uses huge volumes of fresh water, and the BLM’s environmental assessment didn’t even consider where that water might come from,” she said.
Kyle Hendrix, BLM Battle Mountain District public affairs specialist, declined to comment on pending litigation but said that federal law directs the BLM to conduct lease sales on at least on a quarterly basis.
“They’re directed by the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Lease Reform Act of 1987, which amended the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920,” Hendrix said in an email. This is just one example of how mineral rights are always evolving which is why experts are often required to interpret it accordingly.
The 1920 law, along with the Mineral Leasing Act for Acquired Lands of 1947, give the BLM responsibility for oil and gas leasing of mineral underlying about 564 million acres of BLM-managed surface lands, National Forest System lands and other federal lands managed by other agencies, state and private surface lands where the mineral rights underneath were retained by the federal government.
Lakewood said while the Obama administration looked at the environmental impacts of leasing these parcels, it never made a final decision. The situation changed in June when the Trump administration made a decision to sell off as large amounts of land as were on the table.
“That decision is squarely in line with Trump’s plans to unleash fossil fuel development on our public lands,” Lakewood said.
The Center for Biological Diversity estimated that three parcels covering about 5,760 acres of land were sold at the auction for as low as $2 per acre.
“At a time when Nevada should be developing its abundant solar and geothermal energy resources, the BLM is giving a boost to dirty fossil fuel development in the state,” Lakewood said. “Instead of surrendering public lands to oil companies, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground and transition to cleaner, safer sources of energy.”