The public now has less than two weeks to provide feedback during a “scoping period” on a number of Moab-area Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases that will be sold in December. The announcement is raising the ire of several environmental organizations.
“In keeping with the administration’s goal of strengthening America’s energy independence, the Bureau of Land Management July 16 began a 15-day scoping period for the National Environmental Policy Act process to evaluate offering approximately 329,826 acres of federal minerals in Utah for oil and gas leasing. The public scoping comment period ends at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 31, 2018,” said a press release from the agency.
“The BLM welcomes and encourages public involvement early in the NEPA process, as it is an integral part in our evaluation of the proposed lease parcels,” said Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for lands and minerals. “The most effective comments will identify issues and concerns specific to the parcels being considered.”
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and two other environmental watchdog groups are weighing in early during the scoping period, taking aim at what it calls “the largest sale of oil and gas leases on federal public lands throughout Utah in a decade.” In a press release issued on the same day as the BLM’s announcement, SUWA officials said the lease sale will auction off 231 oil and gas lease parcels totaling over 300,000 acres of federal public lands and minerals, including parcels in Utah’s Book Cliffs, the White River, Labyrinth Canyon and Four Corners region.
“Taken together, these parcels cut a wide swath through Utah’s cultural, hunting, and wilderness legacy,” said the press release, jointly released by SUWA, The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The public will not have adequate opportunity to weigh in on this enormous sale,” charged SUWA. “With direction from Interior Secretary Zinke, BLM is shortening the time the public has to review and protest BLM’s proposal from 30 days to 10 days, after first eliminating the public comment period on its environmental analysis altogether. These steps are part of Secretary Zinke’s ‘leasing reforms,’ which aim to remove perceived roadblocks between fossil fuel energy developers.”
SUWA attorney Steve Bloch said, “This is what Trump’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda looks like in Utah. Oil and gas operators win. Everyone else loses. The American public loses the opportunity to enjoy solitude, clear air and hunt and fish – which will be lost to the smog of industrial development. We also lose opportunities to camp, hike, or float on public lands and waters without the intrusive sounds of pump-jacks and haul trucks.”
Lisa Bryant, spokesperson with the Canyon Country BLM office, told The Times-Independent that lands offered for leasing undergo thorough environmental review “with opportunities for public input at several stages: first during development of land use plans, such as the Moab and Monticello Resource Management Plans; next at the lease sale stage; and again before any surface disturbing activities for exploration or development begin.”
But SUWA officials alleged, “In addition to the sell-off of wilderness-caliber and culturally rich lands, BLM plans to lease roughly 100 parcels in or near the Uinta Basin region, which the Environmental Protection Agency recently designated as in ‘nonattainment’ of national air quality standards for ozone. The Uinta Basin suffers from some of the worst air quality in the nation, a result largely due to BLM’s ineffective and lax management of oil and gas leasing and development,” SUWA said. “Rather than take steps to bring the Uinta Basin into compliance with air quality standards, BLM is rushing forward faster than ever to sell off public lands in the basin for exploration and development.”
Landon Newell, another SUWA attorney said, “We will not stand idly by as BLM sells off Utah’s public lands heritage to the highest bidder. BLM’s closed-door fire sale of Utah’s remarkable red rock wilderness will not go unchecked and it will not survive judicial review.”
Nada Culver, director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, said in the SUWA press release, “BLM’s historic practice of leaving the vast majority of our public lands and minerals available for leasing makes so many precious lands vulnerable to irresponsible leasing decisions, like those proposed for the December lease sale. This administration is directing the agency to ignore its responsibilities to the American people, turning public lands over to the oil and gas industry that are more valuable for other uses.”
Bobby McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council added, “This sweeping sale is a serious wake-up call to the American people, who own these cherished public lands. Selling off our special places to fossil fuel interests is a one-way street–we won’t get these beautiful places back. These sensitive lands should be withdrawn from the lease sale, and the public is entitled to have a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on this bad idea.”
The press release noted, “Utah, like most western states, has a surplus of BLM-managed lands that are under lease but not in development–with only 45 percent of its total leased land in development. There were approximately 2.5 million acres of federal public land in Utah leased for oil and gas development at the close of BLM’s 2017 fiscal year. At the same time, oil and gas companies had less than 1.2 million acres of those leased lands in production,” SUWA alleged.
The BLM recently issued new policy instructing state offices to move away from the rotating district lease sale schedule and return to offering parcels statewide for each quarterly sale. This will be BLM Utah’s first statewide lease sale under the new guidance.
The parcel list can be viewed online, as well as maps and shape files, at the following BLM ePlanning National NEPA Register project page: http://go.usa.gov/xUWdx. Scoping comments can also be made there, and according to the BLM “are most useful when they identify issues relevant to the proposed action or contain new technical or scientific information. Scoping comments will not receive a formal response, but will be evaluated in the BLM decision-making process to identify issues that need to be analyzed and addressed through the NEPA process.”
Bryant said the BLM continues to review nominated parcels to determine if they are appropriate for leasing according to applicable laws and policies. Each lease announcement includes specific environmental protection stipulations and notices to lessees about potential environmental concerns. The new leasing reform policy will reduce the time between parcel nomination and when companies may bid and increases the number of parcels being considered in the December 2018 sale.
The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, as amended, directs agencies to conduct quarterly lease sales in each state where eligible lands are available. Sales can be conducted more frequently if the Secretary of Interior determines such sales are necessary. Leases are first offered for competitive bid. If they are not sold at auction, the parcels can be sold non-competitively for two years.
Oil and gas development on BLM-managed lands in Utah contributed $1.7 billion to the economy and supported 9,171 jobs in fiscal year 2016, according to the agency. The State of Utah receives about 50 percent of the proceeds of each lease sale.