The Wilderness Society Lauds New Interior Department Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms

May 17, 2010

WASHINGTON, DCNew oil and gas leasing reforms announced today by the Department of the Interior represent a significant improvement for how the Bureau of Land Management will conduct its onshore oil and gas leasing program for public lands.

“For too long, oil and gas development has prevailed over the BLM’s responsibility to protect environmental, fish and wildlife, and cultural values on our public lands,” said Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows.  “We hope today’s announcement will open a new and better chapter in how our shared natural lands are managed.”

According to The Wilderness Society, of particular importance are the agency’s acknowledgments of its multiple-use responsibilities in the new policy, which states that, “the BLM recognizes that… leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values…,” and that, “under applicable laws and policies, there is no presumed preference for oil and gas development over other uses.”

“With this guidance, the BLM is correcting the imbalance in management of our public lands that has led to oil and gas development occurring at the cost of other values,” said Dave Alberswerth, The Wilderness Society’s senior policy advisor on energy issues. “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.”

In addition, the Interior Department announced that from now on, the use of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) “categorical exclusions” will be subject to existing rules that govern their use. During the Bush Administration, the BLM used language included in Section 390 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as a kind of “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, said Alberswerth. 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.

Some of the other notable features of the new guidance include:

  • The guidance stipulates that “While an RMP [Resource Management Plan] may designate land as ‘open’ to possible leasing, such a designation does 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.
  • These decisions permit closing areas to leasing or imposing other practices, such as phased leasing, phased development, unitization, caps on surface disturbance – these are key to “doing it right.”
  • 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.

“By providing time for review by the BLM, other affected agencies, local governments, and the public prior to leasing, the agency can ensure that the right lands are leased,” said Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “This policy shows a true commitment to making the right decisions about leasing decisions, 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.”

In addition, the guidance facilitates public involvement by mandating both environmental review and public comment periods. In doing so, said Culver, “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.

“By taking responsibility for strategic development of our public lands, the BLM is taking on its rightful role as steward of these lands for all Americans – not just for the oil and gas industry,” said Culver.