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Judge rules against North Dakota's federal oil leasing request

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oil field camping 2 (copy)

An oil well operates on federal land amid the Badlands of Billings County.

A judge has denied North Dakota's request for an order forcing the federal government to hold oil lease sales.

The Bureau of Land Management is planning to hold such a sale in the first quarter of 2022 after canceling all sales last year. U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor ruled against the state Friday in part because a U.S. Justice Department attorney offered an assurance earlier in the week that the bureau plans to hold the sale imminently.

The dispute arose after President Joe Biden early last year issued an executive order pausing oil leasing on federal lands while a review of the leasing program could take place.

A number of oil- and gas-producing states sued the federal government to try to force lease sales to resume. They scored an early victory in June 2021 when a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the president's pause. The Louisiana judge's ruling applies nationwide.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem filed a separate suit in U.S. District Court in North Dakota seeking additional relief that would force the federal government to hold the lease sales canceled in the state during 2021, along with future sales.

Traynor wrote in his order that he agreed with the federal government's assessment that the state had made "a premature request" better dealt with later after the parties have a chance to provide more information to the court.

"This preliminary injunction in the Louisiana case provides North Dakota with the protection it needs at this early stage," Traynor wrote.

The federal government has appealed the Louisiana ruling. Traynor said North Dakota could try to raise its concerns again if that case is overturned or the scope of the injunction changes.

Stenehjem said in a statement that his office "will be closely following the actions of the federal government agencies as they now proceed with the promised lease sales in February and thereafter."

"We are fully prepared to hold their feet to the fire and will not hesitate to bring the matter before the Court again as the circumstances warrant," he said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. A lawyer for the department at a hearing earlier this week offered a different explanation for why lease sales were canceled in North Dakota last year, saying that the bureau needed to revisit the way it conducts environmental analyses following unrelated court rulings tied to leasing.

A date has not yet been announced for the upcoming lease sale. It is expected to include 15 parcels of land in North Dakota. Oil companies can bid on the parcels to secure a lease, which then gives them 10 years to develop the federal minerals. A company must also secure a separate permit from the federal government before drilling for oil.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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