Oil and Gas Overhaul: Controversial Utah leases may lead to reforms

Chocolate Drops in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Photo by Mike Hill, Courtesy NPS.

Nearly a year after the Bush administration put some of Utah’s most pristine lands on the auction block for oil and gas leasing, the Department of the Interior has handed down a report with recommendations aimed to overhaul the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas leasing programs.

The Oct. 8 report noted that mistakes were made in the 2008 Utah leasing process and that the BLM operated under the false notion that oil and gas leasing should take priority over other uses of the land.

“This report confirms what many involved already knew and now we must determine the best path forward,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel in The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. Culver explained that the findings are not limited to the areas in Utah under scrutiny, but will impact many other oil and gas leases in the future.

The Department of Interior now plans to release new guidelines for the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas leasing programs within a month, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. A reorganization of how the department oversees leasing both onshore and offshore will begin following a separate secretarial order.

“Our team will closely monitor the reform process to ensure that wilderness and national parks are not compromised in a rush to drill action,” Culver said.

The 77 Utah leases would have been located in iconic western landscapes, including Desolation and Labyrinth Canyons, and adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Desolation Canyon. Photo by Alex Daue.In early 2009, The Wilderness Society and our coalition partners were successful in obtaining a temporary injunction from a federal district court halting the sale of the Utah land parcels. Secretary Salazar then ordered a review of the parcels after directing the leases to be withdrawn and bonus payments returned to those who had winning bids.

“This recent report clarifies current misunderstandings that have resulted from the Bush Administration’s policies making oil and gas the dominant use on our public lands and turning over control of leasing to the oil and gas industry,” Culver said.

“We are heartened to see the Department of Interior reclaiming its authority and responsibility to manage these lands for all Americans. We hope that the Secretary will take this opportunity to protect the irreplaceable wilderness and cultural values of these places,” Culver added.

An analysis conducted by The Wilderness Society earlier this year found the 77 leases under review would contribute less than 2 days worth of natural gas and less than 2 hours of oil at current national consumption levels.

According to the report, eight of the Utah parcels were inappropriate for leasing. Another 17 are ready to be leased, and 52 will be deferred until the agency can undertake further review and changes.

Key acknowledgments and recommendations from Department of the Interior statements and the report include:

  • Mistakes Were Made: Secretary Salazar acknowledged that there was a “headlong rush” to sell these 77 leases and that Utah BLM was operating under a misconception that oil and gas leasing and development should be prioritized. To the contrary, the Report submitted by Deputy Secretary Hayes and the Secretary’s comments confirm that this is a “new day” for the management of our public lands and that protecting wildlife, wilderness, and cultural resources are equally important. The report notes several key flaws in the Utah resource management plans that made this sale possible.
  • Environmental Impacts Must Be Seriously Considered: The report recognized that BLM has simply not done its homework when it comes to evaluating the impacts of energy development to air quality, wildlife, and visual resources. Several recommendations were made on how the agency should enhance collaboration and methodologies in assessments.
  • Many Values and Uses Beyond Oil And Gas; New Guidance Is Needed: The report confirmed that there is a crucial lack of consistency and coordination in BLM’s oil and gas leasing program and that BLM must take a more proactive role in managing it. DOI will be leading the effort to provide the BLM state and field offices with clear guidance for how to review nominated leases and how to balance competing resources like recreation and wildlife with energy development, including how BLM should identify and manage lands with wilderness characteristics due to apparent confusion on this issue.

Chocolate Drops in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Photo by Mike Hill, Courtesy NPS.
Desolation Canyon, Utah. Photo by Alex Daue.