Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms: Huge win for public lands!

Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Courtesy BLM.

Sweeping reforms to the Department of Interior’s oil and gas leasing program on public lands were handed down by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on May 17.

These reforms, which we view as a win for wildlands, will finally pull back the unbridled controls the oil and gas industry held over public lands during the Bush Administration.

Places like Utah’s Labyrinth Canyon and Colorado’s Vermillion Basin, among the wildest and most beautiful places in the country, now have a strong chance of being protected from inappropriate oil and gas leasing once proposed for these same lands.

The reforms require future oil and gas leasing decisions on public lands to undergo greater management and environmental scrutiny by the Bureau of Land Management. They also direct the BLM to consider places that should not be leased or should only be leased with stringent protections, even where initial decisions to make these lands available for leasing without sufficient safeguards were made during the Bush Administration.

Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center said the reforms show a true commitment to making the right decisions about leasing, not just making decisions to lease based on the demands of the oil and gas industry.

“On the ground, these reforms have major positive implications for Western treasures, including Otero Mesa, Adobe Town, Vermillion Basin, and Labyrinth Canyon, that have been targeted by overzealous oil and gas companies,” Culver said.

For years The Wilderness Society has been engaged in an effort to ensure our public lands are protected for their intrinsic values, including the wilderness characteristics we hold dear. Secretary Salazar announced the sweeping reforms in January, but it wasn’t until this week that they were released in an Instructional Memorandum that now will guide regional Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices in their energy leasing efforts. Following the environmental crisis unfolding with the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, these reforms couldn’t come at a better time to show the oil and gas industry that they do not deserve to control our public lands.

The announced reforms allow the Bureau of Land Management to correct Bush-era imbalances in management of our public lands that favored oil and gas development at the cost of other values, such as conservation.

During the Bush Administration, the BLM used loopholes included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as a “license to kill” environmental reviews of key oil and gas development decisions, leading to thousands of permits to drill being issued without even a pretense of responsible environmental review and imperiling resources like the rock art museum of Nine Mile Canyon. That will no longer be the case with the BLM’s onshore oil and gas program. The Wilderness Society was part of a lawsuit to challenge this unacceptable practice that led to this important change toward ensuring common sense consideration of vulnerable resources before approving drilling.

Salazar’s reforms also include the following stipulations:

  • While BLM Resource Management Plans may designate land as ‘open’ to possible oil and gas leasing, such designations do not mandate leasing.
  • Although “state offices will continue to respond to expressions of interest from industry in leasing particular parcels,” they “will also take the initiative to strategically plan for leasing and development on areas that have the potential for oil and gas development but have not been fully leased.”
  • Master Leasing Plans are to be completed where the area is not currently leased, there is majority federal mineral interest, there is an interest in leasing expressed by the oil and gas industry, and additional work is needed to address conflicts (such as other important resources), air quality, impacts on other federal lands, or impacts on other specially designated lands, such as lands with wilderness characteristics.
  • The Department can close areas to leasing or impose phased leasing, phased development caps on surface disturbance, or other practices that lessen the impact of drilling on the land. All field offices will conduct interdisciplinary reviews and site visits, look at new information and policy guidance, determine whether “non-mineral resources values are greater than potential mineral development values,” coordinate with local governments and other agencies, provide for public participation (including e-mail, websites and comment periods).
  • New requirements for consultation before leasing occurs with other affected federal agencies, state and local government entities, affected landowners, and the public.

In addition, the guidance facilitates public involvement by mandating both environmental review and public comment periods. In doing so, the BLM is returning leasing on our public lands to an issue that rightfully involves the public. Instead of having to beg or formally petition for information and documents, there will be a chance for the public to have input and the agency is not being pressured to make decisions with minimal oversight. This should lead to better leasing decisions.

  • There is a mandatory NEPA compliance and 30-day comment period prior to leasing regardless of whether the BLM prepares a Determination of NEPA Adequacy or an Environmental Assessment/Finding of No Significant Impact – this takes away the incentive to avoid doing actual review.
  • BLM will provide notice to interested parties by web postings and e-mail lists – this replaces the current system where BLM defaults to posting a piece of paper in a field office, not updating the website, refusing to provide notice, and requiring FOIA requests to even see NEPA documentation

Many of our country’s treasured lands now stand a chance at greater protection thanks to an Interior Department that balances energy production with environmental and cultural values. As the months pass The Wilderness Society is hopeful we will see increased dialogue with local communities, required environmental analysis, and more transparency in the process. This should ultimately decrease the number of formal lease sale protests and the justified outrage from local residents who were previously kept out of the leasing process. It also means we can do a better job to ensure that the failures in government responsibility evident in the Gulf of Mexico are also stopped on our public lands.

Oil and gas development is one use of our public lands, but it is not the only one and, given the damage it causes to other resources, it should not be presumed to always be the right one.

Vermillion Basin, Colorado. Courtesy BLM.