“To Count or Not to Count, That is the Question”

Posted on June 28, 2018 by Jeff Civins

“To count or not to count”--greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions--was a question facing both the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) and the US Forest Service (“USFS”), in deciding whether to lease 13 parcels of federal mineral estate in Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico for oil and gas production, and the federal district court in New Mexico, on an appeal of those agencies’ joint determination to lease those parcels.  The appeal, filed by plaintiff citizen groups, in San Juan Citizens Alliance v. United States Bureau of Land Management, No. 16-cv-376-MCA-JHR, D. NM (June 14, 2018), asserted a number of violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) based on, among other things, the agencies’ alleged failure to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing.  The GHG emissions in question related to those that would result not from the production of oil and gas from the leases, but rather from the consumption of that production--and the resulting climate change impacts of those emissions.  The court answered yes to the question of whether to count those emissions, but its determination raised another question--what difference would or should counting those GHG emissions make.

Operating under a memorandum of understanding, the USFS and BLM jointly manage oil and gas leasing on federal forest land, with the USFS regulating the surface and the BLM, the subsurface.  The USFS identifies specific lands to be offered for lease; the BLM provides a reasonably foreseeable development scenario.  If the UFS consents to leasing, it may include conditions; BLM may then issue competitive leases.  The leases here were issued after protracted administrative proceedings, which included the USFS’s preparation of an environmental impact statement and supplement that supported the permitting of oil and gas leasing and which culminated in the BLM’s issuance of a Decision Record and Environmental Assessment approving the parcels for lease, which “tiered to” the USFS environmental studies.

Plaintiffs argued that the agencies “failed to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of oil and gas leasing” before making an irretrievable commitment of resources.  Regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality, at 40 CFR Part 1500, define the pertinent terms.

Direct effects” are “caused by the action and occur at the same time and place” while “indirect effects” are effects that “are caused by the action and are later in time or farther removed in distance, but are still reasonably foreseeable.” A “cumulative impact,” on the other hand, is an “impact on the environment [that] results from the incremental impact of the action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions regardless of what agency … or person undertakes such other actions.” “Cumulative impacts can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time.” 

BLM’s Decision Record explained that the agency was evaluating only GHG emissions associated with exploration and production of oil and gas (estimated to be 0.0018% of the US’s total GHG emissions), because the environmental impacts of GHG emissions from consumption of that oil and gas, e.g., refining and consumer-vehicle combustion, were not direct effects and neither were they indirect effects because production was not a proximate cause of GHG emissions resulting from consumption.  BLM argued, however, that emissions from consumption were accounted for in the cumulative effects analysis. 

The Decision Record explained:

The very small increase in [GHG] emissions that could result from approval of the action alternatives would not produce climate change impacts that differ from the No Action Alternative. This is because climate change is a global process that is impacted by the sum total of [GHG] emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere. The incremental contribution to global [GHG] from the proposed action cannot be translated into effects on climate change globally or in the area of this site-specific action. It is currently not feasible to predict with certainty the net impacts from the proposed action on global or regional climate.

The Air Resources Technical Report discusses the relationship of past, present and future predicted emissions to climate change and the limitations in predicting local and regional impacts related to emissions. It is currently not feasible to know with certainty the net impacts from particular emissions associated with activities on public lands.

The Air Resources Technical Report noted that the BLM did not have the ability to associate an action’s contribution in a localized area to impacts on global climate change,” but may do so in the future when “climate models improve in their sensitivity and predictive capacity.” 

In its review of the agencies’ record, the court noted “neither the Record Decision nor its tiered or incorporated documents estimate the potential greenhouse gas emissions from consumption of the oil and gas produced by wells developed on the leases, nor do they discuss the potential impacts of such emissions. “  The court concluded that the failure to estimate the amount of GHG emissions resulting from consumption of the oil and gas produced as a result of development of wells on the leased areas was arbitrary and required that BLM reanalyze the potential impact of such greenhouse gases on climate change in light of the recalculated amount of emissions in order to comply with NEPA.

For that reason, the court remanded the case to the BLM to address this error and to consider whether, based on that reanalysis, its mitigation analysis needed to be revised as well.  The court reasoned that GHG emissions from the consumption of oil and gas were an indirect effect that BLM should have considered, citing Sierra Club v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm’n, 867 F.3d 1357, 1374 (D.C. Cir. 2017), and found that BLM also did not adequately consider the cumulative effects of those emissions, together with other emissions.

The question raised by this case, and Sierra Club v. FERC, which the court cites, is how helpful the analysis of indirect and cumulative effects will be to the agency in its decision-making and could or should that analysis result in the selection of a different alternative or in requirements to mitigate. As a practical matter, given the global nature of the concern posed by GHG emissions and the relatively small contribution of the activity under review, is there an expectation that an agency will make meaningful changes in its decision-making as a result of any required reanalysis? So perhaps the question should be not whether to count or not to count, but rather, “What difference would or should counting make?”And, perhaps an even more salient question is, as a policy matter, should concerns posed by GHG emissions be better addressed through legislation and rulemaking rather than by imposing constraints on an ad hoc basis?