Looking before leasing can save America's wildlands from oil and gas drilling

View of San Rafael Swell, Utah.

DaBinsi, Flickr

The outlook could have been a lot worse for Utah's wildlands.

We know that Arches National Park and the red rock canyons, buttes and mesas that make up Utah’s San Rafael Swell are Too Wild To Drill—but not that long ago nearby wildlands faced immediate threats of drilling.

Five years ago, on Dec. 19, 2008, as the Bush administration was leaving and the government was transitioning, 77 oil and gas leases were sold in Utah. These leases were poorly planned, hastily laid out and threatened some of state's wildest places.

If these drilling leases were seen through to fruition, hiking and biking trails would have been damaged or closed off. Wildlife like bighorn sheep and bald eagles would have seen their habitats affected.  Air quality and all aspects of enjoying nearby national parks would have been harmed.  

Bighorn sheep in San Rafael Swell, Utah. Credit: charles.bukowski, Flickr

Fortunately, the risk of drilling was mitigated before it even began. The Wilderness Society, along with other concerned conservationists, led the charge to stop the issuing of leases on these lands.

In 2009, in response to a court order halting the lease sale based on failure to consider its potential harms, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cancelled the leases and, in addition to evaluating how to move forward on those specific leases, began to broadly reform how the agency manages leasing of our public lands to oil and gas companies.

Now, five years later, the Department of Interior is implementing these reforms and finding ways to improve their leasing program. Last year The Wilderness Society issued a report card tracking the progress of the reforms. The agency made significant strides in the right direction, but more needed to be done to make sure that wild places like the San Rafael Swell stayed free of drilling rigs and pipelines.

One of the reforms suggested was to use a new planning tool, called a Master Leasing Plan, to fully examine a landscape for all of its values, determine where and how oil and gas development could occur, and what lands should be protected for their other values.  This would put things like recreation and wildlife habitat on the same playing field as oil and gas drilling—making sure that drilling isn’t going to take place somewhere it should not.

Credit: gregw66, Flickr

The next step towards protecting areas that are too wild to drill is to fully implement these Master Leasing Plans across the lands that the Bureau of Land Management oversees. This would set the stage for a thoughtful approach to managing federal lands across the West that recognizes the many values of our public lands, such as:

  • Keeping important habitat for the greater sage grouse safe
  • Safeguarding pristine but unprotected “wilderness quality” areas
  • "Looking" before we lease to make sure we are permitting leasing and drilling in way that will not interfere with wildlife or other protected areas like national parks

The 77 Utah leases are symbolic of a time when oil and gas drilling was considered the primary use for BLM lands, in spite of the fact that these lands are home to both natural and recreational resources. We’ve learned lessons the hard way that this approach cannot succeed. The reforms that stemmed from that fateful day in 2008 have laid out a path toward balance back to our public lands. Let’s keep following it.