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Rocky Mountain Wild v. Bernhardt

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 19, 2019

ROCKY MOUNTAIN WILD, NATIONAL PARKS CONSERVATION ASSOCIATION, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY, and WILDEARTH GUARDIANS, Plaintiffs,
v.
DAVID BERNHARDT, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Interior, and BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, Defendants,
v.
AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE, INDEPENDENT PETROLEUM ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA, UTAH PETROLEUM ASSOCIATION, and STATE OF UTAH, Intervenor-Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTIONS TO TRANSFER

          Marcia S. Krieger Senior United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to Defendants David Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management and the Intervenor-Defendants American Petroleum Institute, Independent Petroleum Association of America, Utah Petroleum Association, and the State of Utah's (hereafter, “the Defendants”) Motions to Transfer to the District of Utah (# 22, # 23, and # 24), the Plaintiffs Rocky Mountain Wild, National Parks Conservation Association, Center for Biological Diversity, and Wildearth Guardians' (hereafter, “the Plaintiffs”) combined response (# 25), and the Defendants' replies (# 26 and #27).

         FACTS

         The Court assumes the reader's familiarity with the claims and underlying proceedings in this case, and offers only a brief summary here, elaborating as necessary in its analysis.

         The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) uses a three-step process when managing oil and gas development on public lands. (# 1 at 8). The BLM first creates Resource Management Plans (“RMP”) to identify which public lands will be open to oil and gas leasing and provides for any stipulations or conditions for the development of those leases. (# 1 at 8). In formulating an RMP, the BLM relies upon Environmental Impact Statements (“EIS”) and Environmental Analyses (“EA”) prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). EAs consider the impact of oil-and-gas leasing on the specific lands under consideration. (# 1 at 10-11).

         In December 2017 and June 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) issued 59 oil and gas leases covering 61, 910.92 acres of land in northeast Utah. (# 1 at 1). In this case, the Plaintiffs challenge these two decisions made by the by the BLM's Vernal, Utah Field Office arguing that the BLM failed to consider how the air pollution from developing these leases will adversely affect public health, the environment, the climate, and nearby public lands. (# 1 at 1). More specifically, the Plaintiffs assert the following three claims for relief: (i) that the BLM relied on a flawed EA prepared for the Vernal Field Office concluding that the December 2017 lease sale in the Uinta Basin would not have a “significant impact on the environment” and did not prepare an EIS, in violation of NEPA; (ii) the BLM failed to evaluate reasonable alternatives to its decision to issue the 59 oil and gas leases covering 61, 910.92 acres in northeast Utah in violation of NEPA; and (iii) the BLM failed to prevent unnecessary degradation of the public lands in violation of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (“FLPMA”), provide for compliance with and support of federal air quality standards, and ensure conformance with the Vernal Field Office RMP prior to issuing the December 2017 and January 2018 leases. (# 1 at 31-37).

         Plaintiffs initially filed this appeal as part of one administrative appeal challenging three BLM decisions to issue oil and gas leases in both Colorado and Utah. However, the Court granted the Defendants' motion to sever to the extent that, having found no evidence of a common record or common questions of law or fact, it bifurcated the case into two separate actions - one from the Colorado decision and one from the two Utah decisions. See Rocky Mountain Wild v. Bernhardt, No. 18-cv-02468-MSK, ECF No. 43 (D. Colo. May 29, 2019). The Court also denied Defendants' motion to transfer review of the Utah decisions to the United States District Court in Utah, finding this Court is an appropriate forum for reviewing the Utah decisions. Id. Thus, in accordance with the Court's order, the Plaintiffs filed the pending case challenging the BLM's issuance of the Utah oil and gas leases. The Defendants[1] now move to transfer this new action to the United States District Court in Utah.

         ANALYSIS

         The Defendants seek to transfer this case to the District of Utah asserting that (i) the Plaintiffs could have originally brought the action in the District of Utah and (ii) the public and private interest factors weigh in favor of transfer. (# 22-1 at 5). In response, the Plaintiffs argue that this Court should not reconsider its earlier decision denying the motion to transfer and that their choice of forum outweighs any local interest in the BLM's Vernal Office's oil and gas leasing decisions. (# 25).

         The Court is vested with broad discretion to transfer a case to a venue in which it could have originally been brought if a transfer would be in the “interest of justice” and “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Any party, and even the Court sua sponte, can move for transfer of an action under § 1404(a) at any time during the pendency of the case. Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Country Chrysler Inc., 928 F.2d 1509, 1516 (10th Cir. 1991).

         In order for the Defendants to establish that transfer is proper, they must show that the Plaintiffs could have originally filed this suit in the District of Utah and that considerations of convenience and the interest of justice weighs in favor of a transfer to Utah. Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Country Chrysler Inc., 928 F.2d 1509, 1515-16 (10th Cir. 1991). Here, it is undisputed that Plaintiffs could have originally filed this action in the District of Utah. The public lands at issue are located in Utah. The BLM office and its officials who made the challenged leasing decisions are located in Utah. Also, all underlying NEPA proceedings that led to the leasing decisions were conducted in Utah. Thus, because a substantial part of the events giving rise to the claims occurred within the District of Utah, it would be a proper venue. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).

         Now, turning to whether considerations of convenience and the interest of justice weigh in favor of a transfer, the Court examines each case individually and considers the following factors: (i) the plaintiffs' choice of forum; (ii) the accessibility of witnesses and other sources of proof; (iii) the cost of making the necessary proof; (iv) questions as to the enforceability of a judgment if one is obtained; (v) relative advantages and obstacles to a fair trial; (vi) difficulties that may arise from congested dockets; (vii) the possibility of the existence of questions arising in the area of conflict of laws; (viii) the advantage of having a local court determine questions of local law; and (ix) all other considerations of a practical nature that make a trial easy, expeditious and economical. Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Country Chrysler Inc., 928 F.2d 1509, 1516 (10th Cir. 1991).

         Although brought as a civil action, this case is essentially an administrative appeal for which most of the Chrysler Credit factors are irrelevant because they bear upon fact-finding at trial. Thus, the relevant factors here are (i) the Plaintiffs' choice of forum and (ii) the advantage of having a local court determine questions of local law. The Court considers each factor in turn.

         A. ...


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