Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms Arrive: Our efforts paid off!

Desolation Canyon in Utah, which has been threatened by oil and gas development. Photo by Phil Hanceford.

Great news! The oil and gas reforms we’ve been pressing for with the Obama administration have finally appeared. An announcement this week from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his team promises to repair Bush-era practices that allowed sensitive lands to be quickly leased to oil and gas development without proper environmental assessments.

If you were one of the many who helped us speak up on this issue, thank you! You’re efforts will help create more balanced oil and gas leasing decisions and help places like Utah’s red rock canyon lands, where land parcels were rushed to the auction block without full analysis of how they would be impacted by energy development.

As part of the reforms, Secretary Salazar announced Jan. 6 that:

  • The Bureau of Land Management must conduct required environmental analyses of oil and gas proposals whenever there are extraordinary circumstances such as the presence of an endangered species or the presence of cultural resources like panels of ancient petroglyphs and rock art, as in Utah.
  • A Secretarial Order is establishing an Energy Reform Team that will identify and oversee energy reforms.
  • Immediate direction to the BLM will ensure that they, not the industry, will determine where, when and how oil and gas leasing will occur.

We are encouraged that DOI acknowledges problems with the BLM’s oil and gas program and are working to fix them. Under the Bush administration, the BLM was issuing leases in such a fast and furious manner that the BLM staff did not have the chance to actually visit the land and parcels being put up for lease. As a result, inappropriate lands, like sensitive areas in Utah’s red rock canyon country were offered for oil and gas leasing with little review.

The BLM’s own review of their oil and gas leasing program led to a report last October that identified this and numerous other problems with a group of oil and gas leases in Utah’s canyon country. The report determined that the BLM should play a greater role in determining which parcels to lease and not just lease the parcels nominated by industry sight-unseen. This week’s announcement directs the BLM to take a greater role in defining which areas will be leased and how the leases will be configured and encourages on-the-ground interdisciplinary review of the lands to be leased. This will allow potential conflicts to be identified and addressed before the land is leased. Common sense measures like the protection of air quality, watershed, wildlife, and wilderness will be part of the decision making process.

Another part of the announcement addressed our concerns from a Bush-era decision that allowed oil and gas companies to avoid compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to ensure proper public involvement in decisions affecting the environment and to take into account all of the resources, such as water and wildlife, impacted by a development proposal. It also ensures the BLM looks at alternatives to proposals impacting its lands and identifies mitigation measures.

A big problem arose when Congress adopted the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the administration began to allow exemptions from doing environmental analysis for some actions associated with developing oil and gas on Americans' public lands. The BLM’s liberal use of these exemptions resulted in hundreds of activities not receiving proper analysis. In fact, a recent Government Accountability Office report found a lack of clarity with respect to when these exemptions should be used.

Interior’s announcement addresses these concerns, which The Wilderness Society and the greater conservation community have been raising, and it instructs the BLM to comply with the law that already exists. This means the BLM needs to do a NEPA analysis whenever there are extraordinary circumstances such as the presence of an endangered species or the presence of cultural resources like panels of ancient petroglyphs and rock art, as in Utah.

Finally through the new Energy Reform Team, the Interior Department will take a serious look at what the law requires for oil and gas leasing on our public lands. The Wilderness Society hopes this new framework will help to implement more responsible leasing policies, though it is still unclear what such a reform team will look like.

We are hopeful that these reforms will move the oil and gas leasing program in a new direction — a direction that leads to compliance of existing laws and energy development that provides security to our nation while protecting our most valued lands. The Wilderness Society believes we can do both, but that there is a right way to conduct business on public lands. There is a long battle ahead of us and this is simply one piece to a large energy puzzle as we look to grow our economy and provide domestic fuels for America.

photo: Desolation Canyon in Utah, which has been threatened by oil and gas development. Photo by Phil Hanceford.

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