Is the Wilderness Society against oil-and-gas development in Montezuma County?
That’s been a concern of the county commissioners since they learned the environmental group was part of a lobby effort that persuaded the BLM to consider a master lease plan for energy development.
A master lease plan would outline additional management to BLM rules already in place for oil-and-gas extraction.
But during a well-attended public meeting with the commissioners, Wilderness Society attorney Nada Culver rejected the notion that their intent is a ban on drilling.
Culver said the group supports the plans because they require more BLM planning when granting leases and drilling permits.
“When 92 percent of (local) public land is open to oil-and-gas leasing, there needs to be more specific planning on where and when to develop,” she said.
Are you for multiple use? the commissioners asked.
“Master leasing plans are an example of multiple use,” Culver said. “They are leases for drilling. Multiple use also includes wildlife, recreation, and grazing; it does not mean every use in every place.”
The proposed MLP boundary includes BLM lands and federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County. A year of public meetings will determine if the added management plan is needed. If implemented, it will be the only stand-alone master lease plan in the nation. The other seven plans are within resource management plans of land agencies.
Culver said an MLP is warranted to try and mitigate inevitable local conflicts with oil and gas earlier, before leases and drilling permits are issued. Areas of concern are potential oil-and-gas fields near Hesperus, around Phil’s World bike park, on BLM hunting grounds and the edge of Menefee Wilderness Study Area, and along the BLM escarpment of Mesa Verde.
“We know there are going to be conflicts, we know there is industry interest. Let’s come up with a more detailed plan instead of waiting and having fight after fight, drilling permit by drilling permit,” she said.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel pressed for details, saying, “I’m still trying to find where the resource management plan in place now is neglectful or misses the mark.”
Culver responded that they want changes to the BLM’s “waiver, exception and modification” policy on industry stipulations designed to mitigate impacts.
“There are no restrictions on where and how the BLM can modify them,” she said. “An operator can go to BLM and say they would like to remove a stipulation from my lease, and it is the BLM discretion,” whereas the Forest Service has more strict conditions on when that can happen.
When contacted on the matter, Connie Clementson, BLM’s Tres Rios field manager, said the “waiver, exception, modification” policy is not taken lightly, must comply with federal environmental laws, and includes public comment.
“The BLM feels it is useful,” she said. “For example, an area could be off-limits due to a map that shows it is 35-degree slope, or because of a geologic hazard. If the company goes on the ground and proves an area does not meet that criteria, then that could qualify as an exception.”
The policy could also be used to make stipulations more strict, she said, such as to protect riparian areas that are larger than first realized.
The county said local public land officials need to be trusted to protect local interests and resources. Culver admitted that the BLM has to have discretion in their decisions for energy development, but that an MLP puts up needed “sideboards.”
“A master lease is helpful because it provides more clarity and gets down to the level of (drilling site) conditions for pits, casings, and roads to protect water quality, air quality and wildlife habitat,” Culver said. “For oil-and-gas companies, they know exactly what they are buying into.”
The commissioners challenged the claim that 92 percent of federal public lands are available for lease when it comes to Montezuma County.
“Menefee and Weber Wilderness Study Areas are off-limits, Mesa Verde is off-limits. That does not leave very much land for development,” said commissioner James Lambert. “It’s hard for me to understand what’s got you so worried. To me, the expense of trying to make plans firmer is a rip-off to the taxpayer.”
There are three public land areas in Colorado with master lease plans for oil-and-gas development. They are North Park, near Kremmling; Shale Ridges, near Grand Junction; and Dinosaur Trail near Dinosaur National Monument.