County’s oil and gas lease sale challenged

Conservation groups are challenging the federal government’s offering of more than 16,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Mesa County in a sale next month, citing concerns including potential impacts to imperiled species and the climate.

The Bureau of Land Management is planning to offer more than 20,000 acres altogether in a lease sale Dec. 8, also including nearly 2,000 acres in Garfield County and acreage on the Front Range.

The Mesa County acreage is generally north and south of Plateau Creek just east of the Colorado River, west and north of De Beque, and east of Collbran.

Conservation groups have filed three protests of the sale.

“BLM has failed to take a hard look at the potential impacts of selling the proposed parcels. The agency has not undertaken the required site-specific
 analysis of individual parcels, and the agency has not considered the potential climate impacts of selling more oil and gas leases,” states a protest from the Wilderness Workshop, Wilderness Society, Western Environmental Law Center, Conservation Colorado, Rocky Mountain Wild, Western Colorado Congress and San Juan Citizens Alliance.

They say the BLM improperly relies on broad-scale analysis in resource management plans of its local field offices, and that analysis is inadequate to address site-specific issues. Once the agency confers lease rights, it will be limited to imposing mitigation measures consistent with the lease terms, and may be unable to adequately prevent potential impacts it discovers when a company proposes to drill, they say.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club voiced similar concerns in their protest.

The two protest letters also raise concerns about potential impacts to the Colorado hookless cactus, DeBeque phacelia and Parachute beardtongue, three plants listed as threatened species and protected under the Endangered Species Act.

While the BLM includes lease stipulations requiring protective measures within 100 meters of sensitive plants, some of the groups say that’s a smaller buffer than Fish and Wildlife recommends.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club also cite concerns about the amount of water consumption involved with hydraulic fracturing, particularly in the case of horizontal wells that companies have been drilling locally in the gas-rich Mancos shale, and the resulting water depletions in the Colorado River watershed and impacts on endangered fish. In September, the Center for Biological Diversity and the group Living Rivers notified the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their intent to sue over this concern as it relates to federal leasing in the Upper Colorado River Basin. A representative of the Western Energy Alliance industry group responded at the time that those groups are grasping at straws on the issue of the industry’s water use, which is less than a tenth of a percent of overall water use in the state.

Other concerns raised by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club include the potential for floods along the Colorado River and Plateau Creek damaging oil and gas infrastructure and leading to chemical spills and other problems, and whether fracking or the use of wastewater injection wells could cause earthquakes that would threaten the integrity of the dam at Vega Reservoir in the Plateau Valley.

The two protest letters and a third from WildEarth Guardians faulted the BLM for failing to analyze the climate-change impacts associated with the leasing and ultimate development of the acreage. Among the possible impacts of climate change is reduced germination rates for the DeBeque phacelia, conservationists say.

The Center for Biological Diversity said in a news release that the lease sale could result in more than 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s irresponsible for the BLM to issue new fossil fuel leases on public lands without considering the impact that extracting and burning these new sources of dirty energy will have on the climate,” said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Given the recent election result, the Obama administration should move immediately to halt new leasing on public lands to preserve (President Obama’s) climate legacy.”

The BLM says it is required to hold lease sales.

“We’re going to go through all the protests and we’ll respond to all of them,” BLM spokesperson Courtney Whiteman said. “If we see anything specific in the protests we need to address, we’ll address them.”

It’s possible the BLM could delay the sale or pull some parcels from it, based on the protests.

“If we don’t see any reason to or if we feel we addressed everything in the protests then we’ll move forward with the sale,” she said.

The BLM typically doesn’t finish resolving protests until just prior to a sale, she said.

The lease sale is scheduled to be conducted online rather than in a physical location. The BLM has begun shifting to online sales, which it believes will make it easier for bidders to participate, boosting bidding and revenues.

The move has been praised by industry representatives who say in-person sales provide a protest opportunity for potentially dangerous anti-drilling extremists.


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