A new directive by the U.S. Department of Interior jeopardizes a pending master leasing plan in Southwest Colorado that would scrutinize oil and gas development near Mesa Verde National Park.
In March, the Washington, D.C., office of the Bureau of Land Management approved development of a master leasing plan for 71,000 acres in Montezuma and La Plata counties. The plan was to analyze potential energy development on BLM-controlled lands to protect archaeological resources and recreational areas, including the popular Phil’s World mountain bike park.
But in a report on energy policy released Oct. 24, the Department of Interior included master leasing plans as one of many regulatory “burdens” to oil and gas development. The agency is expected to rescind the policy authorizing them.
“The BLM is currently evaluating existing MLP efforts with the goal of ending this approach,” states a report titled “Review of the Department of the Interior Actions that Potentially Burden Domestic Energy.”
The directive states that the “BLM expects to rescind” the policy authorizing MLPs. It states that current BLM Resource Management Plans will be the source of land allocation decisions for oil and gas.
“It will result in more streamlined National Environmental Policy Act analysis, and a shorter timeframe for acreage nominations to make it to a competitive lease sale,” the report says.
President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, aims to end polices supported under the previous Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who served under President Barack Obama.
The report says the previous policies are overly regulatory and inefficient, causing a backlog of energy leases that have led to uncertainty in the industry.
The report envisions that revised BLM policies will work to reduce the time from nomination of energy leases to their sale from 16 months to eight or six months.
“A shorter period from nomination to sale will reduce the number of nominated acres awaiting competitive sale at any given time and will increase industry certainty regarding the acreage it holds,” according to the report. “As a result, industry will be able to plan for and execute exploration and production strategies earlier, and respond more effectively to changing market conditions.”
Because of the approved MLP for Southwest Colorado, all potential leasing in the mapped area identified for additional environmental study was deferred while the plan was being put in place. The deferred areas include the Phil’s World mountain bike park, areas along the Mesa Verde escarpment, BLM lands south of Summit Lake and BLM lands and subsurface federal mineral areas in western La Plata County and along the eastern border of Montezuma County.
“An unintended consequence of (MLPs) has been that many areas open to oil and gas leasing have been deferred from leasing while they await the completion of the MLP process,” according to the Interior energy report. “While there will continue to be acreage sale deferrals for various reasons, completion of MLP NEPA will no longer be one of them.”
Local plan in doubtThe local BLM master leasing plan generated support and criticism over a series of public meetings in the past two years to determine if one was needed.
It had majority support from environmentalists and La Plata County residents who felt it would help protect recreation areas, archaeological sites and scenic land around Mesa Verde National Park from excessive oil and gas development. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also supported the additional wildlife analysis that the MLP would have provided.
But there was less enthusiasm from conservative Montezuma County residents and commissioners.
“We never believed an MLP was necessary, and I support the Interior Department recognition of that overregulation,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel. “The Resource Management Plan already has volumes of regulations for oil and gas development.”
The commissioners fought hard against a local MLP. They noted the sensitive lands and viewsheds of the Mesa Verde escarpment already have a No-Surface Occupancy condition for oil and gas development. And as a compromise to the MLP, the commissioners advocated that the BLM amend the Resource Management Plan to put a No Surface Occupancy condition on the Phil’s World recreation area.
Citing strong public support, the MLP was approved, but was reduced from 326,000 acres to 71,000 acres. Formation of the leasing plan is supposed to begin in spring 2018.
Regarding the status of the local master leasing plan, Tres Rios BLM manager Connie Clementson stated in an email Thursday that the office “had not received any change of direction in policy or procedure at this time.” Changes typically come through the Washington office through an Instruction Memorandum, she stated, adding that the office will continue to operate under current policies.
Conservation groups respondIn a telephone conference call, environmentalists and a Utah public official said removing MLPs gives energy companies too much control when developing on public lands.
Mary McGann, of the Grand County, Utah, Council, said the completed Moab master leasing plan has been successful in balancing the need for energy development and protecting the areas vibrant recreation economy.
“Our MLP has been an effective process and helps guides development so it does not impact our outdoor recreation areas,” she said. “Without the MLP, the companies can end up making decisions on where infrastructure will go, even if it hurts a trail system.”
In an emailed statement, San Juan Citizen’s Alliance said Zinke’s report prioritizes fossil fuel development “above all other uses” and disregards public input on the use of public lands.
“Locally, these actions bulldoze the pens and voices of hundreds of citizens in La Plata and Montezuma counties that spoke out passionately last year in support of a master leasing plan for Southwest Colorado to ensure protection of our agriculture, wildlife, water and cultural resources when developing oil and gas resources,” stated Jimbo Buickerood, land protection manager for the Alliance.
Ashley Korenblat, managing director for Public Lands Solutions, said master leasing plans have been successful near Dinosaur National Park in protecting the outdoor recreation economy and natural values.
“Saying they are a burden ignores the flow of recreation revenues, which are more sustainable long-term, in a time when counties across the West are feeling the budget shortfalls from the boom and bust of oil and gas,” she said. “Unplanned leasing threatens the growth of recreation on our public lands.”
MLP advocates urge that existing and pending MLPs be retained.
In a press release, Zinke said that developing energy resources to grow the economy and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.
However, while conducting the review, we found that several costly and burdensome regulations from the past threaten that balance by hampering the production or transmission of our domestic energy,” Zinke said. “Our public lands are meant to be managed for the benefit of the people. That means a multiple-use approach where appropriate and making sure that multiple-use includes energy development under reasonable regulations.”
Whether the pending BLM’s Tres Rios master leasing plan will be canceled or allowed to proceed is unclear. An email and phone call to the Tres Rios BLM office had not been returned as of press time. The BLM public relations office in Montrose referred all media inquiries on the matter to the Department of Interior. Submitted questions had not been responded to as of press time.