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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)

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)


Too Special to Drill?

Earlier this month Defenders, along with some of our partners, submitted a letter calling for greater conservation measures to be incorporated into a proposed drilling project on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in eastern Wyoming, near Yellowstone National Park.  Our very own Dave Gaillard provided his expertise on lynx in an effort to show the Forest Service that this area may be, simply put, too special to drill.

lynxOne of the key issues that makes this project so important (and frightening) to Defenders of Wildlife is habitat connectivity – full field development of more than 300 acres in this area will lead to further fragmentation of habitat for lynx, as well as other iconic species in the region like elk.  Fragmentation is a problem because not only does it lead to less habitat for lynx and (as important) lynx prey, it also contributes to the separation of remaining lynx populations from each other.  This leads to a shallower gene pool and to difficulty moving through the landscape and escaping threats – wide ranging animals like lynx need space if they’re going to survive, and drilling dozens of oil wells in their way certainly won’t help efforts to recover the species.

As Dave puts it: “We are aware of no better documented travel corridor for lynx in the contiguous U.S. than the Hoback Rim, or “Bondurant Corridor” that passes directly through the project area.”  The challenges that lynx and other resources will face if this project moves forward as designed inspired a number of organizations to come together and seek out a solution (from our letter):

“The best solution to protecting these natural values from the development of these leases is to negotiate a buy-out and retirement of the leases . . . . Yet we understand the Forest Service lacks the authority to select this alternative without the consent of the lease holder. Thus we urge the Forest Service to create a new ‘conservation’ alternative for the exploration and development of these leases that can serve as a showcase for drilling in areas of extraordinary value to wildlife and recreation.”

As we state, our first and foremost priority is to see the negotiation of a buy-out of the leases, but this solution requires a great deal of cooperation, and isn’t one the Forest Service necessarily has control over.  The Forest Service does have the ability to influence what the project looks like if it moves forward.  The types of things we would expect out of a “conservation” alternative include project phasing, which would allow only one well pad to be built and operated at a time.  Each well pad would have to be disassembled and the location would be restored before the next pad could be built and drilled.  Such an alternative, along with other mitigation measures, would lay out a realistic way forward in which leases that have given private oil companies certain rights can be honored without permanent damage to the public lands that we all have ownership over.

Though we worry about the lynx, at its core this is a human problem.  Citizens for the Wyoming Range has put together a great video of local residents who attended the Forest Service public meeting on this project, and shared their own concerns.

We look forward to seeing the Forest Service do the right thing for the Hoback basin of Wyoming, as well as the people and wildlife that call it home.

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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.