Politics — the ability to take one set of facts and interpret them in many different ways. Here are the facts. A federal judge in Washington, DC this week temporarily halted hundreds of drilling operations on 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming. Here is how the news was reported by two different newspapers.
Exhibit A: The Guardian begins its story with these words. “In the first significant check on the Trump administration’s ‘energy-first’ agenda, a US judge has temporarily halted hundreds of drilling projects for failing to take climate change into account. Drilling had been stalled on more than 300,000 acres of public land in Wyoming after it was ruled the Trump administration violated environmental laws by failing to consider greenhouse gas emissions.”
Exhibit B: Here’s how a report in the New York Times begins. “The Obama administration violated federal law by failing to adequately take into account the climate change impact of leasing public land for oil gas drilling in Wyoming, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. But the decision by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia could also present a legal threat to President Trump’s agenda to quickly expand oil and gas drilling and coal mining across the nation’s public lands and waters.
Here’s what happened. A suit was filed by WildEarth Guardians, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Western Environmental Law Center prior to the 2016 election. It alleged the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas exploration of federal lands, failed to calculate and limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from future oil and gas projects. Judge Rudolph Contreras agreed, ruling that BLM “did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing” and “must consider the cumulative impact of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions” generated by past, present and future BLM leases across the country.
That’s an impossible burden, the government and various fossil fuel interests who joined in defending against the lawsuit claimed. Not so, the judge said. He agreed that the agency was correct that the law “does not require the impossible“ but added, “In short, BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”
“What this decision says is, in evaluating the environmental consequences of the lease, an agency has to look not just at the consequences of the impacts immediately surrounding the lease but also the consequences down the road of burning the fuel once it’s extracted,” Richard L. Revesz, an expert on environmental law at New York University tells the New York Times. “That’s enormously important.” He says the kind of calculations the judge says are necessary are relatively simple to make. “It’s not a very time-consuming calculation,” he says. “It’s based on models that already exist.”
Other environmental groups are ecstatic with the court’s ruling, which is subject to review by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately the US Supreme Court if it gets that far. Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program director, calling it a “triumph for our climate. This ruling says that the entire oil & gas drilling program is off the rails, and moving forward illegally.”
The Trump maladministration is planning to open up millions of acres of land to oil and gas exploration, most of it in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming as well as offshore development along the Atlantic coast. Its standards for those proposed leases are far weaker than those proposed by the Obama administration. If a court found the Obama-era rules insufficient, the Trump rules will be even more inadequate.
How will this all play out? Anyone who tries to guess how a court will rule in any given situation is a brave person indeed. Ordinary citizens assume the law is the law is the law, but politics play a large role in legal matters and the influence of money and self interest is getting greater all the time. The problem is, America has a legal system which is subject to the same abuses as the legislative and executive branches of government. What is lacks is a justice system, one that works equally for all citizens all the time.
Despite the flowery language chiseled into the marble of the Supreme Court building — Equal Justice Under Law — that idea remains more a fond hope than a reality.