A master leasing plan to further regulate oil and gas in Southwest Colorado has not been approved by the federal government, despite an announcement in December that it was, according to officials with the Bureau of Land Management.
Master leasing plans are developed to scrutinize energy development on sensitive landscapes, including recreation zones. The customized plans allow for drilling with an eye toward minimizing impacts to other land values.
After more than a year of public meetings, an MLP was reportedly given the green light for the Tres Rios BLM office on 71,000 acres of BLM-controlled areas in Montezuma and La Plata counties.
The MLP was reportedly intended to allow more planning to protect Mesa Verde National Park viewsheds, cultural sites and recreation areas such as the Phil’s World trail system.
On Dec. 19, the BLM informed Montezuma County commissioners that the proposed master leasing plan had received Washington approval. Plan development was expected to begin in 2018, according to Tres Rios field manager Connie Clementson.
But on Wednesday, 11 months later, it was revealed the final approval was announced prematurely by then-Colorado BLM state director Ruth Welch to the Tres Rios office.
“Tres Rios was informed it had Washington approval, but written concurrence documentation from the national office never happened and that is required for final approval,” said Steven Hall, BLM Colorado communication director.
Hall said that although the Colorado BLM office recommended the Tres Rios master leasing plan and submitted a proposal up the chain, the national office did not take official action on the recommendation.
“No MLP was approved by the BLM for the Tres Rios field office,” Hall said. “It is on us for not catching that miscommunication earlier.”
The mistake also potentially impacts oil and gas development near Mesa Verde National Park. While master leasing plans are developed, energy development leasing in the area is deferred until the plan is completed. That was done in this case for the March 2018 lease sale.
BLM officials said that it is now possible that leasing could be approved in the area for the March 2019 sale, if parcels are nominated by companies beginning in June.
The miscue was brought to light after a Nov. 1 article by The Journal that said the pending local MLP was in jeopardy because of a new Department of Interior report that said the plans are a “burden” to oil and gas development. The policy authorizing MLPs is expected to be rescinded, according to the report, as part of President Donald Trump’s directive to streamline domestic oil and gas regulations.
After researching the status of the local master leasing plan, Hall said they discovered the agency error.
Clementson said the Tres Rios office “will continue to work with the counties on managing oil and gas development, including opportunities to minimize impacts to Phil’s World recreation area.” Montezuma County residents, including the county commissioners, showed overwhelming support for protecting the popular biking area from oil and gas impacts.
The local MLP discussion was polarizing. Environmental and recreation groups supported the MLP, and energy interests and the Montezuma County commission argued that current regulations were sufficient.
Since MLPs are likely to go away anyway, the revelation that the local one never had final approval makes the issue a moot point, said Jimbo Buickerood, of San Juan Citizens Alliance, which supported the plan.
But he said getting rid of them is unfortunate, he said. MLPs are effective advanced plans for energy development in order to protect water sources, recreation, agriculture and viewsheds.
“MLPs do not stop oil and gas. They are a land use plan that looks at development in a balanced way so there are not adverse effects on other resources and interests,” Buickerood said. “For example, these plans can prevent a spider-web of gathering lines that could have been relocated and clustered to minimize surface impacts.”
Eric Sanford, who represented the oil and gas industry’s opposition, said the regulations of master leasing plans were unnecessary.
“When I apply for a permit to drill, it already goes through an environmental analysis,” he said. “MLPs are delay mechanisms for those who oppose oil and gas, and they are the wrong tool to analyze such a small area.”