U.S. officials must consider climate change effects from leasing about 250 square miles (648 sq. kilometers) of public lands in Colorado and Utah for oil and gas drilling, under a federal court ruling issued Wednesday.
The order from U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington follows a March decision in the same case that blocked drilling on 500 square miles (1,295 sq. kilometers) of energy leases in Wyoming.
The earlier ruling required a new environmental review of the impacts from burning fossil fuels extracted by private companies through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's sizeable energy leasing program.
But unlike earlier, Contreras did not immediately block new drilling in Colorado and Utah. Environmentalists who brought the case said they were still deciding whether to request such a move.
Contreras acted at the invitation of government attorneys representing the Department of Interior. They conceded, based on the judge's March ruling, that a new review in Utah and Colorado was "appropriate" because the circumstances were similar to what happened in Wyoming.
"In the March 19 ruling, the court found that (Bureau of Land Management) failed to take a hard look at the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing," the attorneys wrote. "The analyses of climate change impacts in ... the Colorado and Utah leasing decisions are similar."
Approval of the Wyoming leases was ultimately renewed this month, after BLM officials published a hastily assembled document in April that said the Wyoming leases by themselves had "minor potential" to affect the rate of climate change.
The dispute revolves around leases sold to companies in the three states in 2015 and 2016, during President Barack Obama's administration. It comes amid an aggressive push by President Donald Trump's administration to open more public lands to energy development.
Environmentalists had criticized the study of the Wyoming leases as a cursory review that largely ignored the threat posed by climate change.
"We feel they are likely to do the same thing here," said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "They need to do better. We need to see a commitment by the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior to confront the climate crisis."
Extracting and burning fossil fuels from federal lands generates the equivalent of 1.4 billion tons (1.3 billion metric tons) annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Survey. That's equivalent to almost one-quarter of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Interior Department Press Secretary Molly Block said in response to a question about the April review that the agency "met the legal obligations to analyze greenhouse gas emissions."
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which advocates for the industry, said the government's decision to complete the greenhouse gas analysis for Colorado and Utah was logical after the judge's ruling in the Wyoming case.
Sgamma said it was not a setback for energy companies.
"It's just a commonsense decision not to move forward with litigation and get the same result two more times, but just do that analysis now and submit it and be done with it," she said.