Report Card Grades BLM on Progress Toward Reforming Oil and Gas Leasing on Our Public Lands

Jul 24, 2012
The Bureau of Land Management is making significant improvements to the nation’s onshore oil and gas leasing program, but still has some work to do, according to analysis by The Wilderness Society.

Making the Grade (Almost): The BLM’s progress and improvements to our nation’s onshore oil and gas leasing program”  is a report card and analysis that tracks the progress—and the work yet to be done—by the BLM to fully implement recommendations identified in a 2009 agency review of its flawed federal leasing program.

“Faced with a leasing program that had become fundamentally broken, the BLM is making significant gains in reducing the amount of conflict that arises from leasing federal lands without doing the proper homework upfront,” said Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center and the report card’s author.  “We have seen improved recognition and protection of important wildlands, wildlife habitat, cultural resources and recreation opportunities – vital resources of our shared public lands.  But the BLM still has more to do now to make these improvements to the onshore oil and gas leasing program lasting and meaningful.”

In 2010 the BLM announced a major overhaul of the agency’s leasing program following an internal investigation that found serious problems with how the agency was making decisions about oil and gas leasing on federally managed lands across the West. The reforms followed a final report from that investigation (the “Stiles Report”), issued in October 2009, which made recommendations on addressing critical problems with the BLM’s onshore oil and gas leasing program.

The Wilderness Society’s report evaluates and grades seven of the key policy changes made that track with the recommendations of the Stiles Report and how they are improving the BLM’s approach to oil and gas leasing on the public lands:

  1. The BLM has set the appropriate context for oil and gas leasing– acknowledging it is just one use of the public lands. 
  2. The President’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” emphasizes oil and gas production but also the importance of reducing the environmental impact and increasing the safety of production.
  3. A new planning tool, Master Leasing Plans, provides an opportunity for more responsible and efficient development, but requires formal agency support.
  4. The BLM’s Greater sage-grouse planning effort provides an important opportunity to both conserve this imperiled species and responsibly manage oil and gas development on public lands.
  5. The BLM’s guidance on inventorying and management of lands with wilderness characteristics provides direction to BLM for acknowledging and conserving this important resource, but the value of identifying and protecting wildlands requires ongoing emphasis.
  6. Leasing and drilling is becoming more transparent, although significant gaps remain.
  7. Increased public and stakeholder participation are contributing to BLM refining its leasing decisions and better addressing potential environmental harms and conflict (and the attendant delays).

“The existing surpluses of unused leases and drilling permits, as well as reduced industry interest in developing natural gas on public lands, makes this an especially opportune time to ensure that ongoing leasing and development is done in the right places and in the right way,” said Culver. “Despite some in the oil and gas industry claiming that the industry has been hamstrung by Interior Department policy, we instead found that lease sale protests have declined in the Rockies, leases sold are being issued with fewer delays and most nominated parcels are leased, while the BLM evaluates needed protection for other resources and uses.”

The analysis concludes with a series of recommendations on additional steps the BLM should take in order to ensure the success of its leasing reforms and provide a lasting “fix” for the onshore leasing program.  Those recommendations include issuing additional implementation guidance to the field and taking certain measures through the land use planning process to protect wilderness and wildlife resources.