BILLINGS, Mont. – A U.S. judge has dealt another blow to the Trump administration's efforts to increase domestic oil and gas output from public lands, saying officials failed to protect habitat for a declining bird species when it issued energy leases on hundreds of square miles.
Judge Brian Morris said the Interior Department did not do enough to encourage development outside of areas with greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird whose numbers have dropped dramatically in recent decades.
The judge canceled energy leases on more than 470 square miles (1,200 square kilometers) of public land in Montana and Wyoming. That means officials will have to return millions of dollars in sales proceeds to companies that purchased the leases.
The leases at issue already had been invalidated in previous cases that went through other federal courts. But the latest ruling, handed down Friday, appears to go further and strike at a key component of the administration's broader energy policy.
”The errors here occurred at the beginning of the oil and gas lease sale process, infecting everything that followed," Morris wrote.
Megan Crandall, a spokesperson for Interior's Bureau of Land Management, said Tuesday that the agency stands behind the leasing guidelines it issued in 2018.
“We assert that all of our lease sales are on sound legal footing and in full compliance" with federal environmental law, she said.
Sage grouse range across about 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) in parts of 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Their numbers have plummeted due to energy development, disease and other factors.