Sierra Club Secures Four Major Wins Stopping Fossil Fuel Leasing on Public Lands

This month, Sierra Club achieved a grand slam in our litigation to protect public lands from fossil fuel extraction. We secured four critical victories that halt fossil fuel leasing and require the federal government to examine the climate, health and environmental harms before allowing further leasing to proceed. And the month is only half over!


On August 12, a federal district court in Montana issued an order reinstating an Obama-era pause on coal leasing on public lands. The decision overturns a Department of the Interior order, issued under the Trump administration, and applies to all federal lands and federal coal reserves nation-wide. The Biden administration will now have to decide whether to allow any coal leasing on public lands and must disclose all of the resulting environmental, climate, and public health impacts.

The original moratorium was put in place under President Obama in 2016, but it was illegally lifted by the Trump administration. Federal coal leasing accounts for roughly 40% of all coal burning in the United States, making it a key contributor to the ongoing climate damages already experienced in communities across the country. By some estimates, 90% of all coal reserves must remain in the ground in order to limit warming to 1.5C of pre-industrial levels.

The Sierra Club was represented by Jenny Harbine at Earthjustice. Environmental Law Program attorneys Nathaniel Shoaff and Aaron Isherwood led Sierra Club’s work on the case.


In Montana, a federal district court held that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in crafting resource management plans for its Buffalo and Miles City field offices. The plans set allowable uses across 13 million acres of public lands in Montana and Wyoming, and allowed more than 6 billion tons of coal mining over 20 years. The court held that NEPA required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to consider an alternative that would prevent new coal mines and preclude expansions of existing mines, in order to lessen the plans’ climate impacts. As the court explained, “BLM cannot exclude an alternative based on the agency’s desire to support existing mining operations.”

The court also found BLM violated NEPA by refusing to analyze and disclose the myriad public health impacts that result from burning coal, oil, and gas generated under the plans. Emissions of lead, mercury, and other toxic pollutants lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, and these harms will now have to be accounted for in BLM’s revised NEPA analysis.

The Sierra Club was represented by Senior Attorney Nathaniel Shoaff, Melissa Hornbein at Western Environmental Law Center, and Shiloh Hernandez of Earthjustice.


In Colorado, Sierra Club and our allies secured important protections that will stop further oil and gas leasing on 2.2 million acres in the North Fork Valley until BLM re-analyzes the associated climate and public health impacts. As part of the settlement, BLM has agreed to redo the environmental analysis for the Uncompahgre Resource Management Plan and will update its range-wide plan to protect the “endangered” Gunnison sage-grouse. BLM’s new analysis must address climate and public health impacts caused by drilling, shipping, and burning oil and gas produced on public lands, and will consider at least one alternative that reduces oil and gas drilling throughout the planning area. “Our public lands are some of our most treasured places, holding important cultural history and providing a home to wildlife and places to recreate with our families,” said Dan Ritzman, director of Sierra Club's Lands, Water, Wildlife campaign. “They should be part of the solution to the climate crisis, not leased to fossil fuel companies that are killing our communities and burning our planet.”

Sierra Club was represented in the case by Senior Attorney Nathaniel Shoaff, as well as attorneys at Western Environmental Law Center and Center for Biological Diversity.


In California, Sierra Club and our partners negotiated settlement agreements in two lawsuits against BLM that have the effect of keeping in place a de facto moratorium on onshore oil and gas drilling on federal lands in California. These settlements build upon more than a decade of advocacy. The de facto moratorium began in 2013, when we won a lawsuit challenging oil and gas leases, with the court agreeing that BLM had violated the law by failing to consider fracking. The recent settlements will preserve that moratorium while BLM again grapples with the harmful impact of oil and gas production. 

Specifically, we settled a lawsuit challenging BLM’s resource management plan for the Bakersfield field office that requires BLM to fully assess the impacts of fracking and oil and gas production, reconsider the plan in light of this analysis, and not issue any further oil and gas leases in the area until that process is complete.

In parallel with this settlement, Sierra Club and our partners settled a second lawsuit challenging seven individual oil and gas leases encompassing 4,134 acres of federal land in Kern County, which were issued in reliance on the challenged plan. In this lawsuit, we argued that BLM failed to adequately consider fracking impacts and environmental justice implications. Pursuant to the settlement, BLM will prepare an additional analysis, after which it will reconsider the leases. In the interim, BLM will not allow any new drilling on the leases.

As BLM undertakes these additional analyses, we will continue our vigorous advocacy. Further fossil fuel development has no place on public lands.


The Thunder Basin National Grassland, seen below sans strip mines: