They were supposed to be another tool in the Bureau of Land Management’s proverbial tool chest, a way for public-lands managers to oversee oil and gas development on a mid-range scale, somewhere between over-arching resource management plans and site-specific drilling applications.
Now, it appears the BLM’s master leasing plans will wind up in “the trash can of history,” as Jimbo Buickerood, lands and forest protection program manager for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, puts it.
The BLM’s Tres Rios Field Office, which manages more than half a million acres in Southwest Colorado, was set to move ahead with a master leasing plan, or MLP, covering 71,000 acres in Montezuma and La Plata counties. The field office got approval from the state and national BLM offices to create the plan following a lengthy and rigorous process in 2015 and 2016 that included public meetings and solicitation of individual comments from elected officials as well as concerned citizens and entrepreneurs. The vast majority of those who gave input favored developing an MLP.
But late in October, the Department of Interior put forth a report titled, “Review of the Department of the Interior Actions That Burden Domestic Energy.” Among other measures, it calls for rescinding a BLM “instruction memorandum” that allows for MLPs, saying, “The BLM is currently evaluating existing MLP efforts with the goal of ending this approach.”
The agency’s new direction is supposed to be in place by March 2018. The report concludes, “Interior is aggressively working to put America on track to achieve the President’s vision for energy dominance and bring jobs back to communities across the country. Working with state, local and tribal communities, as well as other stakeholders, Secretary [Ryan] Zinke is instituting sweeping reforms to unleash America’s energy opportunities.”
MLPs, a relatively new agency tool, are intended to scrutinize energy development in certain areas of special interest. The 71,000 acres that was to be the focus of the local MLP included the Phil’s World bike-trail system east of Cortez, areas along the Mesa Verde escarpment, and BLM lands near Summit Lake and in western La Plata County.
The Montezuma County commissioners steadfastly opposed the development of an MLP. They said the resource management plan for the entire Tres Rios Field Office contains enough regulations regarding oil and gas, noting there is a whole appendix devoted to the subject.
The commissioners pointed out that the BLM already has a “no surface occupancy” stipulation for drilling in the Mesa Verde escarpment, meaning that drillers cannot put their equipment on those lands, and the county worked to keep Phil’s World from being drilled through an arcane provision in state law allowing for protection of “areas of state interest.”
But Buickerood said there are concerns remaining that could have been addressed through an MLP, which can allow stricter regulations on certain portions of the lands managed by a field office.
“The Mesa Verde escarpment is ‘no surface occupancy,’ but there are places that are not – some in front of Mesa Verde and stretching over to Phil’s World,” he said.
The commissioners’ opposition to the MLP was a minority view. The plan had broad support from those who provided feedback.
In a 2016 letter to the BLM, Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer weighed in on the side of the plan. He wrote that as a Class I area under the Clean Air Act, the park “requires the highest levels of protection from atmospheric pollutants.”
“Industrial development of oil and gas on the order seen today in the San Juan Basin in close proximity to [the park] would significantly degrade the park’s air quality related values. . .,” Spencer wrote. The San Juan Basin in the New Mexico portion of the Four Corners is notoriously crowded with well pads and often crowned with a soupy haze that is visible for many miles.
Spencer said an MLP could strengthen air-quality protections by ensuring that best management practices were not “waived by discretionary or permissive language.” The City of Cortez, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Osprey Packs and two dozen other businesses in Montezuma and La Plata counties, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the La Plata County commissioners, and many others supported the creation of an MLP.
Crow Canyon President and CEO Deborah Gangloff wrote that an MLP would help protect cultural resources in the Mesa Verde escarpment, many of which have not yet been surveyed. “The MLP can do this through measures that cluster the impacts in areas with the fewest cultural resources and minimize the cumulative effects that could occur if leasing and extraction proceeded on a case-by-case/well-pad-by-well-pad basis,” she wrote.
Buickerood said the alternative now is to depend on the BLM to protect key resources such as cultural sites, viewscapes, air quality, and more through sitespecific stipulations on individual applications for permits to drill, or APDs.
“We would have to be totally relying on the BLM and lease stipulations for the APDs,” he said.
Buickerood said some 10,000 acres that had been proposed by the BLM for oil and gas leasing in 2013 on the west side of La Plata County and the east end of Montezuma County near the Menefee Wilderness Study Area have been deferred for leasing until the development of the MLP. If MLPs go out the window, he said, it is likely the 10,000 acres will go on the auction block for leasing again.
Buickerood said the Tres Rios resource management plan does not address some concerns that could have been covered in an MLP. “There are no stipulations available for BLM to use that are really tied specifically to agriculture,” he said. “Ag is not included in any of the stipulations at all. That whole Appendix H in the RMP doesn’t say ‘agriculture’ once.”
In addition, the RMP does not specifically address conservation easements, he said. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife is very concerned.” A great deal of public money under the Greater Outdoors Colorado program has been invested in conservation easements, many of which are related to wildlife, he said. “The public has invested monies, but are those areas really going to be protected?”
He said he was not certain how MLPs that are already in place, such as one in the Moab area, would be affected by the Interior Department’s new policy. Buickerood said the Moab MLP enjoys widespread support, even from the energy industry, because their representatives believe it will reduce haggling over and protests of individual drilling applications.
The Interior Department’s intention of fast-tracking leasing and removing “burdens” on energy development is just a way to reduce the public’s influence on decision-making, Buickerood maintained.
“Streamlining just means removing the public input — this administration thinks it’s a burden that the public provides input, it’s a burden that there are protected areas.”