Lawsuit challenges feds over 'sue and settle' tactics on endangered species

Oklahoma's attorney general and an oil and gas industry trade group have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over its decision to settle a lawsuit with an environmental group over the listing status of several animal species.

Scott Pruitt claims in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Tulsa on Monday that federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups and using "sue and settle" tactics that violate the federal Endangered Species Act and have a "crippling effect" on the U.S. economy.

“Increasingly, federal agencies are colluding with like-minded special interest groups by using ‘sue and settle’ tactics to reach ‘friendly settlements’ of lawsuits filed by the interest groups," Pruitt said in a statement.

One of the animals whose listing status is in question is the lesser prairie chicken. It has been under evaluation to be listed as endangered for years.

Pruitt said that has led Oklahoma as well as other states and the private industry to spend $26 million to develop a conservation plan to protect it.

“Oklahoma has indicated its willingness to protect the lesser prairie chicken but it seems increasingly clear this issue isn’t about sound science or saving endangered species," he said. "Using the courts to impose regulations undermines the rule of law."

Conservation groups like New-Mexico based WildEarth Guardians say the lesser prairie chicken has suffered population declines in part due to oil, gas and wind energy development.

According to the lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by agreeing to a settlement with WildEarth Guardians that led to a consent decree requiring the agency to determine the listing status of the lesser prairie chicken by March 31.

The lawsuit also claims the agency violated the law by agreeing to a truncated timeline to the decision-making process on the listing status of the 250 other species, essentially sidestepping the rule making process, the attorney general's office said.

"Because these settlements are taking place without public input, attorneys general are unable to represent the respective interests of their states, businesses, and citizens,” Pruitt said.

The Oklahoma-based Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, which represents independent oil and natural gas producers, is party to the lawsuit. They argue the federal government is using the Endangered Species Act to halt oil and natural gas development and devalue private property rights.

“DEPA joins the state of Oklahoma in this litigation, not only on behalf of our members, but all citizens of this great country, whose rights are threatened when our government precludes participation in the political, administrative and judicial process,” DEPA President Mike McDonald said in a statement.

Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, told Businessweek he couldn’t immediately comment on the allegations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.