Appeals court rules for environmental groups in Montana lawsuit

A federal appeals court ruled that three environmental groups may have standing in a lawsuit to block oil and gas leasing on federal land in Montana. It remanded the case back to Sam E. Haddon, a judge in US District Court for Montana, who ruled 2 years earlier that they did not.

“In analyzing these claims of injury, the district court erred by failing to consider surface harms caused by development of the challenged leases and instead focusing only on the climate change effects of such development,” US Ninth District Court of Appeals Judges Diarmuid Fionntain O’Scannlain said in his Aug. 31 ruling.

Recreational and aesthetic interests that the Montana Environmental Information Center, EarthWorks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, and WildEarth Guardians asserted on their members’ behalf “may establish actual injury to the extent such interests would be concretely harmed by the challenged governmental action,” the judge said.

“This analysis requires consideration of which of the numerous leases, if developed, would harm the specific areas of land enjoyed by [the] appellants’ members,” he said.

“Given the complexity of the factual record before us, we decline to undertake such analysis on appeal. Instead, we remand to allow the district court to determine, in the first instance, which leases the appellants have standing to challenge. When doing so, the district court should include consideration of any actual injury stemming from surface harms fairly traceable to the challenged action,” the ruling said.

An official for the Western Energy Alliance, which was an intervener on the defendants’ side in the appeal, questioned the significance of the appeals court’s ruling.

“This case has been lingering in the courts for quite some time,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president, public and government affairs, for the Denver association that represents Rocky Mountain independent oil and gas producers. “All the judge has done is remanded the case back to the district court, where presumably it will drag on further.”

She told OGJ in a Sept. 2 e-mail that the three environmental groups are trying to argue that oil and gas leasing in Montana should be halted because of a possibly infinitesimal impact on climate change.

“This case is one of many designed to test whether the environmental lobby can stop all fossil fuel development and hence, the foundation of our economy and modern lifestyle on the basis of theoretical climate change impacts, no matter how tiny,” Sgamma said.

Contact Nick Snow at

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