Tag Archive | "Bureau of Land Management"

West Front of the Capitol. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

Secure Capital for Renewable Energy is Good for Wildlife and the Economy

The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes.  Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.

Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies.  The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).

Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy.  At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects.   With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.

In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.

But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise.   Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.

Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.

If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.

Posted in Renewables, Smart from the StartComments (0)

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming plan could go from bad to worse

Bighorn Basin, Wyoming plan could go from bad to worse

Bighorn sheep are among the many species that depend on the Bighorn Basin (photo: Lilian Carswell)

Defenders of Wildlife recently submitted comments on the Bureau of Land Management’s draft Resource Management Plan for the Bighorn Basin area of northwestern Wyoming.  The area supports populations of sage grouse, bald eagle, goshawk, bobcat, marten, red fox, grizzly bear, gray wolves, snowshoe hare, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep and much more.

In our letter we call for stronger standards to protect the valuable wildlife resources in the Bighorn Basin.  Most importantly we ask the BLM to move away from their incredibly risky “case-by-case” approach to wildlife conservation that would delay critical decisions about whether and how wildlife will be protected until after projects have already been designed and proposed, setting a perilous course for wildlife.  Seeing the danger that this approach poses for wildlife, Defenders instead recommends that the BLM adopt strong wildlife protection measures upfront in land management planning.  Establishing bright conservation lines in land development plans creates certainty for developers as well as for the public, who demand the conservation of their publicly owned resources.

Unfortunately for Wyoming wildlife, the story gets worse.  Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his allies in the oil and gas industry have asked the BLM to stray even further from common sense and adopt a plan that would open more than 28,000 acres to oil and gas development with little protection for local wildlife and almost no analysis of what the ultimate impacts of this development will be.  If industry gets its way, BLM would open up so-called “oil and gas management areas,” where wildlife and every other resource except oil and gas could be ignored.  The approach would create what amount to wildlife “sacrifice” areas, where oil and gas development is the dominant use, regardless of impacts to wildlife and other values.

As we state in our letter:

“Instead of focusing on providing sufficient analysis and mitigation for biological resources in areas with heavy oil and gas development, the [BLM proposal] would completely ignore biological resources in these newly established management areas. This opposite approach would go from full analysis and consideration of wildlife, as required by BLM reforms, to none.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration has sought to put in place common sense reforms to the oil and gas development process on public lands to ensure that wildlife and other valuable resources get fair consideration.  The controversial and irresponsible plans proposed by BLM and the Governor of Wyoming are not balanced and should be promptly tabled.  Instead, the BLM should adopt a true multiple-use land management plan that balances the twin goals of wildlife conservation and energy development.

Posted in Public LandsComments (0)

Bureau of Land Management stands up for environmental review

Recently a judge in Wyoming, citing procedural flaws, blocked the BLM’s attempts to reform the way categorical exclusions (CXs) have been abused to rush oil and gas drilling on BLM administered lands.  Rep. Rush Holt (D, NJ) and other members of Congress maintain that the procedure was, in fact, not flawed and have urged the Department of Justice to appeal the ruling.  In the meantime, the BLM has responded to that ruling by initiating a public rulemaking process to remedy the procedural flaws.  While it is unclear at this early stage what exactly the proposed rule will include, BLM deserves applause for continued efforts to respond to major abuses in the use of CXs, as pointed out in a 2009 GAO report (stating that 85% of CXs were applied illegally).

The rulemaking is great news for wildlife and the many other natural resources put at risk by poorly planned oil and gas drilling throughout the west.  Historically, CXs have been used for smaller non-controversial projects where environmental review at a larger scale was already completed and was sufficient to make an informed decision regarding the impacts of the project.  CX policy put in place under the Bush Administration, however, abused the tool, allowing full field oil and gas development to proceed unfettered without consideration of impacts or development of mitigation measures for wildlife habitat, connectivity, endangered species, and other resources.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R, CO), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in the House of Representatives, held a hearing last week covering the CX issue.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry continues to claim that environmental review is a superfluous burden rather than a process to ensure that energy development doesn’t run counter to the nation’s longstanding policy of multiple-use of public lands.

The fact is that industry attacks on environmental review don’t hold up: under the Obama CX policy, oil and gas drilling is back to pre-recession levels and nearing a 20 year high in the U.S., all while oil and gas companies hold more than 6,500 unused permits to drill and millions of acres in leased areas they have yet to pursue development on.  Rep. Raul Grijalva (D, NM) has said that big oil companies “shouldn’t get to call the shots when it comes to public lands,” has applauded the BLM for moving forward with reforms to CX policy, and has called for additional GAO research.  Rep. Diana DeGette (D, CO) was quick to point out that the BP oil spill disaster occurred at a well approved using a CX to bypass environmental review.

BLM’s new rulemaking should find a balance by providing for complete site level review to protect public resources when heavy duty development is proposed, while allowing truly duplicative reviews to be bypassed and encouraging efficiency through processes like Master Leasing Plans.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public LandsComments (0)

Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part III: How to Define the Problem

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Third in a three part series).

Part 2 described why defining the problem is difficult, frequently overlooked, and yet important. Below is a list of questions that should help define the problem and develop a decision statement as the first step in the planning process.

How do we begin? We should start by evaluating our current decision-making processes. Ask why and how we need to improve the way we make decisions.

Who is the decision maker? This is a surprisingly difficult question and there are several scenarios – we may have single decision-maker, delegated authority, multiple decision-makers. Stakeholders, people outside the organization or agency that have interest or power in the decisions, have influence but they may not be decision makers.

What is our decision statement? At home it may be “My kid is acting up.” Our decision statement may be “How can we improve my kid’s behavior?”  At work it may be “We face competing interests between agricultural needs and habitat goals for riparian bird populations.” Our decision statement may be: “How can we optimize protection of riparian habitat for bird populations given competing needs for agriculture”.

Are we attempting to solve the right problem? Beware of decision frame blindness. Conservation issues are not simply technical or scientific, they reflect societal values – scientific, economic, political, and cultural values.  Are there other perspectives that aren’t being considered?  Are we framing the problem by earlier successes or failures? Are our assumptions false?   

Are we recognizing intractable problems? Intractable problems have already been decided, they are decisions that are out of our control, or they are decisions that require a greater level of investment of time, personnel, and resources than we have available. Failure is highly probable unless we re-define the problem so that it is within our ability to solve.

What is the scope of the decision? When & how often will the decision be made?  How large, broad, complicated is the decision?

What are our constraints for making the decision? Are there legal, financial, political constrains for making the decision. Are they perceived or real constraints?

A well-defined decision statement might take multiple attempts, but once you have a grasp on these questions, you can most likely develop a strong decision statement and get your conservation planning process off on the right foot.

Posted in Imperiled WildlifeComments (0)

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Attacks on oil and gas leasing reforms continue

Prairie dogs are among the wildlife species impacted by oil and gas drilling in the Western U.S. (Photo: Michelle Thomas).

The Obama administration initiated reforms to make the oil and gas leasing process on public lands work better for industry, government, taxpayers, and wildlife.  The reforms have received praise and  demonstrated results – environmental groups have filed fewer objections to leases in response to this more transparent process.  The reforms have also ensured full environmental reviews that examine the risks to wildlife and provide for mitigation measures whenever potential impacts are present or when previous environmental analysis has not been completed on a site.

Energy industry groups, however, have challenged the reforms from the beginning.  Reversing the reforms would mean a return to a closed system in which companies select public land acres they want to lease for drilling and proceed to development with almost no transparency, out of reach from members of the public that want to ensure wildlife, water, air quality and other concerns are fully incorporated into decision making.

Last week, at the request of an energy industry trade group, a Federal Judge in Wyoming vacated a segment of these leasing reforms.  The Western Energy Alliance sued the Department of the Interior over Secretary Salazar’s Instruction Memorandum 2010-118 clarifying the use of categorical exclusions (CX’s), which exempt certain activities from environmental review.  This memorandum is important because it responds to deep concerns about the misuse of categorical exclusions to fast-track oil and gas development projects on public lands without adequate environmental or public review.  IM 2010-118 resolved long-standing issues (highlighted by the GAO) by making the following changes:

1.      BLM would evaluate whether “extraordinary circumstances” were present that precluded use of the CXs to skip environmental review;

2.      BLM would require environmental analysis prior to permitting new drilling at a site where drilling had occurred, but might not have been analyzed before;

3.      BLM would require specific analysis of place-based development before permitting new drilling at a site that was part of a larger field (previously not required).

The judge’s decision to vacate these three targeted reforms found that the BLM’s process for changing its position on CXs was not correct – it did not find that the changes themselves were illegal or wrong.  Industry spokespeople, however, have already tried to use this ruling as proof that leasing reforms should be thrown out or ignored.  This is an incorrect interpretation of this narrow ruling.

The ruling expressed no opinion on the merits of the agency’s policies to ensure that oil and gas drilling will not proceed without necessary environmental analysis. The court’s decision means BLM cannot rely on its 2010 guidance right now, but it does not require BLM to return to a practice of endangering our wildlife and natural resources to permit drilling without any common sense limitations. The BLM retains ultimate discretion over both deciding what lands should be leased for drilling and if, how, and when they should be drilled – and the agency can and should continue to exercise its authority wisely.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public LandsComments (0)

Tongass

Bills to “give away” public lands move forward despite harms to wildlife and water

Congressman McCarthy’s Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act seeks to give away some of the last best places on our public lands, and allow private industrial development to move forward in these valuable areas.  The bill would reverse protections on up to 55 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) in National Forests and 6.7 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs).

However, a timely report from the Geos Institute shows that there is a great deal of value in protecting unroaded areas, like IRAs and WSAs, throughout our public lands.  The report indicates that the roadless areas in our national forests alone are responsible for approximately $490 million in water purification services.  These benefits go beyond the dollar value of clean water – they provide healthy aquatic ecosystems and vital habitat for endangered and imperiled species.

The Tongass National Forest is threatened by a new Alaska-specific bill.

Despite these benefits, McCarthy’s bill to undo protections on as much as 60 million acres of our public lands has been scheduled for a hearing this Tuesday, and it will be interesting to find out what arguments bill supporters use to try and explain away the vast reach of the bill.  No doubt their primary message will be that lands currently designated as Roadless and Wilderness Study Areas are “locked up” and cannot be used by industry.  This argument truly misses the mark, as I’ve discussed before, and as the Geos report indicates regarding water, just one of many valuable services provided by undeveloped lands.  Defenders of Wildlife has developed a Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act fact sheet with additional information on its potential impacts, as have some of our partners.

While McCarthy’s bill is attacking Wilderness Study and Inventoried Roadless Areas nationwide, some members of the Congressional delegation from Alaska have put forth their own, Alaska-specific bill that would exempt the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests from roadless protections.  This means that all of the designated roadless areas in Alaska would be released and be on the table for development.  Roadless areas in Alaska cover about 15 million acres and contain some of the largest intact areas of old growth temperate rainforest on the planet.  The radical move of exposing these vast areas to development would deliver a setback to the Tongass National Forest where a transition from damaging and controversial roadless and old growth logging toward more sustainable economic development promises to support communities and maintain the healthy and unique ecosystems of southeast Alaska.

Posted in National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)

oil and gas drilling

The push to “un-reform” oil and gas leasing reform

After taking office the Obama administration took common sense steps to reverse the Bush administration’s unbalanced approach to developing oil and gas on our public lands.  The administration rightly recognized that a “drill baby drill” policy posed a significant threat to wildlife, water, wild places and western values, and was leading to more and more conflict over every lease.  In an effort to reduce the conflict in the leasing process and balance out resource considerations, the Department of Interior provided a number of reforms through Instruction Memoranda.  Reforms from these memos require the Bureau of Land Management to do things like:

  • Standardize oil and gas lease stipulations that protect wildlife and other resources by setting a baseline of protections that have to be incorporated into any drilling project
  • Incorporate new adaptive management features that allow adjustments to be made as more information is gained on how drilling is impacting the natural environment
  • Establish local “Master Leasing Plans” throughout the west to facilitate thorough environmental review of potential drilling impacts BEFORE offering leases in areas with high energy potential and high risk of environmental conflicts
  • Get rid of policies that previously reduced the amount of environmental review required for oil and gas leasing

BLM’s fact sheet on the reforms is here and a chart comparing the old and the new is here.

These reforms were an important step in streamlining and modernizing the process by fully taking into account all resources affected by leasing and by pushing leases into lower conflict areas.  However, as is the case with many of the common sense policy changes initiated on our public lands, these reforms are under attack in this Congress.  Despite the fact that recent reports show onshore oil and gas drilling at a twenty year high even with these reforms in place, a bill introduced in the Senate would reverse the administration’s reform agenda along with a number of other important progressive actions taken by the Obama administration to improve oil and gas leasing.

In addition to the bill, a recent letter from Republican Senators attacked the BLMs leasing reforms.  In response to this letter, former head of the BLM Mike Dombeck said: “It is disappointing to see members of Congress, presumably at the request of industry, attempting to roll back such common sense policies on the land that belongs to ‘we the people.’”

A halt to the Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) currently under development, in particular, would be a huge loss.  These innovative plans provide a new and powerful opportunity to avoid and minimize wildlife and other environmental conflicts that could result from poorly planned oil and gas leasing before a project is sited and investments are made.  This type of “smart from the start” planning results in a win-win because it has the potential to resolve conflicts prior to the siting and development of oil and natural gas wells, thus avoiding costly controversies that always seems to end up in court.  A law that gets rid the MLP process would stop this good policy in its tracks.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands, Smart from the StartComments (1)

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

The Coronado National Forest supports the “sky island” ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

Companion bills in the House and Senate have been introduced that would strip areas of our public lands currently managed for their wilderness characteristics of their protected status.  If the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” were to pass, 43 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Forest Service lands and Wilderness Study Areas throughout our public lands would no longer be protected, including portions of the sky islands in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The bill would also forbid the land management agencies from providing new protections for these “released” areas in the future, effectively preventing them from being designated as permanently protected Wilderness by Congress and opening them up for development.

What’s worse is that the determination of whether a roadless or wilderness area should be stripped of its protections now and into the future would be based on old information without gathering any new data, and with no input from agency experts and scientists or the public.  This means that areas currently providing high quality habitat for wildlife and supporting healthy ecosystems would be exposed to potential development (including timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and more) without any consideration of those natural values.

Supporters of the bill argue that these areas are being managed as “de facto” Wilderness and that “capital W” Wilderness can only be designated by Congress.  While it’s true that only Congress can designate “capital W” Wilderness, they’re missing a lot of important facts in this argument:

First, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service both have multiple use mandates, which support activities like energy development BUT ALSO give these agencies authority to manage for wilderness characteristics and things like wildlife habitat and biodiversity.  This means that these agencies have plenty of authority for designating areas as roadless or wilderness study and managing them for these resources as a precursor to suggesting that Congress make a “capital W” Wilderness designation.

Second, this argument places the needs of industry ahead of the needs of the public who are, after all, the owners of our public lands.  They characterize these areas as being “locked up” from development instead of recognizing that these areas are open to the public for all kinds of valuable uses that are consistent with BLM and Forest Service missions, including recreation and supporting our national heritage of biodiversity and wildlife.  These uses also support our local economies through tourism, the recreation industry, and ecosystem services (like clean water).

Instead of focusing on developing smart policies that balance the many demands on our public lands, like efforts to direct development onto the already degraded areas on our public lands, this bill would open up the most spectacular pieces of our national heritage to development and could have devastating impacts on the wildlife that take refuge in these protected areas.

Posted in National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)


dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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