Programs protecting public lands from leasing rescinded in Interior memo

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. 

Credit: Gage Skidmore, flickr.

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke quietly rolled back important oil and gas leasing reforms instituted by the Obama administration on Bureau of Land Management Lands.

In a Jan. 31 memorandum, Zinke revealed details of a new leasing review process that make it easier for oil and gas companies to gain access to our public lands. For example, leasing decisions will be sped up from about a year to six months, and public input will be voluntary rather than mandatory. The BLM will also be able to change lease stipulations without amendments, and have to give a mere 45-day public notice of a sale. Finally, the public will only have 10 days – rather than the previous 30 – to protest a lease sale. The memorandum requires that all protests be resolved within 60 days of the sale.

“The BLM’s new approach to oil and gas leasing on our public lands … ignores the real concerns of the public and affected communities,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel and Director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.

“In this new process, public participation is optional, as is environmental review of lease parcels and even site visits.”

Another leasing program – the Master Leasing Policy, put into place in 2010 to help fix flaws in the government’s then-leasing strategy – was disbanded altogether.

The memorandum notes, “This policy is intended to result in additional revenue from increased lease sales and reduced costs.”

New Mexico. Credit: Mason Cummings/TWS.

Increased lease sales and reduced costs could result from these actions, but the question is if those results are positive for public lands. Leases generally go to oil and gas companies looking to drill the land, and climate emissions from federal lands already represent over 20% of all U.S. climate emissions.

Instead of using all the land leased so far, oil and gas companies are sitting on their leases, preventing the land from being used in any capacity. Of 27 million acres under lease in 2016, only 14.3 million acres were in use, according to The Wilderness Society’s research. The same applies to drilling: 7,950 approved drilling permits are not under use. The oil and gas industry is further holding about 3.25 million acres of federal leases in suspension.

Stephen Bloch, legal director for the Southern Wilderness Alliance, told The Washington Post that the memo was a “lease first, think later” policy.

“It is fundamentally inconsistent with federal laws that demand agencies think before they act.”

The last time the BLM’s leasing policy resulted in changes, it was because then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had found that the 2008 Utah lease sales had failed to review the environmental concerns and the “sensitive landscapes and cultural resources” on the lands. As a result, those parcels were withdrawn from the sales.

Interior Secretary Zinke seems determined to do the opposite. The memo details as the priority “to simplify and streamline the leasing process … to ensure quarterly oil and gas lease sales are consistently held.” The BLM is openly putting the concerns of oil and gas companies above the concerns of the American people.