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Upcoming federal oil lease sale hot topic during court hearing

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Badlands Oil Well (copy)

A pump jack extracts oil in the Badlands of the Little Missouri National Grassland, which is made up of federal, state and private land.

A court hearing Wednesday on North Dakota’s challenge to the Biden administration decision to halt oil and gas lease sales last year focused largely on how to factor in a sale planned in coming weeks.

The Bureau of Land Management intends to put 15 parcels of federal minerals in western North Dakota up for bid in a sale to be held during the first quarter of this year. Companies that place a winning bid will secure the right to develop that acreage, though they will later need to secure a permit to drill for oil. The agency has not yet announced a date for the sale.

The sale comes after the BLM opted not to hold any quarterly lease sales in North Dakota during 2021.

At Wednesday's hearing, U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor held up an article published in the Tribune last week detailing the agency’s plans to resume leasing in the state.

“So why are we here?” he asked lawyers representing the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, which sued last year to try to force leasing to resume and wants the court to order the federal government to hold the sales.

Special Assistant Attorney General Paul Seby responded that while the upcoming sale is “a welcome proposal,” the federal government continues to deny it has a duty under the law to hold the sales.

“It’s a voluntary action,” Seby said, adding that the federal government could still cancel the sale. “We need to settle this now.”

A federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary order last June requiring leasing to resume nationwide after the Biden administration halted it early in the year. President Joe Biden issued an executive order shortly after taking office to pause the federal leasing program, announcing a review of it "to restore balance on America's public land and waters to benefit current and future generations."

Seby said that even in light of the Louisiana order, the federal government still did not hold lease sales in North Dakota for the third and fourth quarters of 2021.

Traynor inquired whether the state ought to bring its concerns before the Louisiana judge. Seby said North Dakota is not a party to that case, but Traynor responded that the state could seek to intervene. A number of oil- and gas-producing states have joined that lawsuit. The Biden administration has appealed the decision.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said federal oil leasing is “a very, very important matter” for North Dakota, which stands to lose out on royalty revenue from canceled sales.

A lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice said the decision to cancel the first sale for North Dakota in 2021 came after unrelated court rulings in late 2020 prompted the federal government to revisit the way it conducts environmental analyses for oil leasing. The government needed to devise a new way to factor in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, federal attorney Michael Sawyer said.

Officials worked on the matter in 2021, issuing a report in October that “puts us on much firmer footing going forward with respect to greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

The upcoming lease sale in North Dakota includes parcels that would have been part of early lease sales in 2021, he said.

Sawyer urged Traynor to deny the state’s request for an order compelling lease sales to take place, saying “the agency is about to take the very action plaintiffs want.”

Conservation groups including the Dakota Resource Council and the Sierra Club have intervened in the case. They seek to protect public lands from oil development. Their attorney, Michael Freeman, told Traynor they support the federal government’s position.

Traynor did not immediately rule on the case, saying he would take the matter under advisement and issue an order at a later date.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or


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