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Industry group suit targets oil, gas reforms on public lands

Judith Kohler, Aug. 19, 2016

A lawsuit by the Western Energy Alliance targets measures intended to better balance oil and gas development with other natural resources on public lands. Image: NWF

The Western Energy Alliance wants to force the federal government to offer oil and gas leases on public lands, whether there’s demand by the industry or not. Whether it makes sense for American taxpayers or not.

And the Denver-based trade group wants the courts to force the agency that manages drilling on our public lands to roll back reforms that are intended to ensure the drilling is done responsibly.

The WEA has filed a lawsuit claiming the Bureau of Land Management has violated the Mineral Leasing Act by failing to hold quarterly oil and gas lease sales in oil- and gas-producing states. The lawsuit also targets reforms launched by the Interior Department in 2010 after several years of ramped-up leasing and drilling in the Rocky Mountain West. Some wildlife populations declined and air pollution rose in the region as a result of increased natural gas production.

The trade group blames the BLM for bowing to “keep-it-in-the-ground” protesters trying to disrupt sales. Some sales were moved or deferred to avoid any potential confrontations and ensure everyone’s safety. Other cancellations, BLM officials say, are due to waning interest by oil and gas companies struggling through a bust. Drilling rigs are being shut down, wells are being plugged, companies are laying off workers as oil and gas prices stay low and profits plummet.

Bad deal for owners of public lands -- all Americans

But still, the Western Energy Alliance sends its staff to congressional hearings to rail against the BLM for not leasing more public lands. The trade group wants us to believe it’s BLM obstructionism, not market conditions, that’s reduced production.

Then how to explain the fact that about 32 million acres of public lands were leased for oil and gas at the end of fiscal 2015 but only 12.7 million of those were producing? At the end of September 2015, a total of about 7,500 approved drilling permits went unused.

The WEA claims the federal government is obliged to keep leasing our public resources even though oil and gas prices are in the cellar and the industry is sitting on a growing stockpile of leases. That’s a lousy deal for the owners of the resources – the American public. And it doesn't make good business sense, something business people should understand.

“Why should we be selling oil and gas leases on public lands at rock-bottom prices? Why should the American public be in the position of having a fire sale every quarter,” asks Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation public lands policy director. “And why should we be selling off our oil and gas resources without a full understanding of what’s at stake, including fish and wildlife?”

The federal Mineral Leasing Act says lease sales will be held at least quarterly, but adds those will occur where “eligible lands” are available. In 2010, the Interior Department announced several reforms of BLM’s oil and gas leasing program. The reforms were aimed at restoring balance to the use of our public lands. When former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the new policies, he referred to the previous administration’s “anywhere, anyhow” policy on oil and gas development. Interior wanted a better deal for the American public as well as to head off conflicts and lawsuits by addressing concerns upfront.

A better balance

Master leasing plans, for example, were introduced as a way to take a landscape-level view of areas where drilling might take place to better balance any oil and gas development with wildlife, water and other important resources. Everyone gets the lay of the land and there is an opportunity to address concerns before leases are issued.

The BLM has developed master leasing plans for the outdoor recreation mecca of Moab, Utah, and Colorado’s North Park, a premier fish and wildlife region. It will prepare one for Colorado’s South Park, a major source of the Denver area’s drinking and water and renowned for its Gold Medal trout waters, hunting and recreation.

More public involvement, “smart-from-the-start” planning and more attention to the many values of public lands that, under federal law, are supposed to accommodate a variety of activities. These, plus the BLM’s ability to exercise any judgment, are what the Western Energy Alliance wants to quash.

As Zimmerman says: “The Western Energy Alliance and its  industry supporters prefer the old ‘leap before you look’ approach that benefited no one but them and want to force BLM to sell leases without fully understanding the value of either the energy reserve or other public resources that might be placed at risk by development.”



Only about 40 percent of the public lands under lease for oil and gas are producing. Image: Idaho Wildlife Federation.