Dinosaur drilling proposal in dispute
Environmentalists are questioning a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management to offer oil and gas leases near Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where a recently adopted master leasing plan designed to better protect the monument doesn’t apply.
Conservation groups also are waiting to see whether such plans, an approach introduced by the Obama administration, will continue to be available to the agency under the Trump administration and new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The adoption of such a plan by the BLM’s White River Field Office in Meeker helped to address concerns about visual, noise and other impacts of possible leasing near Dinosaur in the case of BLM lands in Colorado. But the monument extends into northeastern Utah, where no such plan is in place, and the BLM is considering leasing acreage near the monument in December.
According to an environmental assessment released last week, one parcel would abut the monument and two others would be within a mile of it.
Nicolas Lund, with the National Parks Conservation Association, told reporters in a conference call that some lease acreage is in the area of Dinosaur’s main entrance road within a mile of its Quarry Visitor Center.
The monument already has provided initial comments to the BLM, voicing several concerns. Monument spokesman Dan Johnson said the National Park Service believes a lease parcel south of the Green River would be in sight of the visitors center. Beyond visual concerns, the Park Service is worried about noise, reduced air quality, light pollution affecting night skies, impacts on lands the agency manages as recommended wilderness, and the potential for illegal off-road traffic if there is road development because of leasing.
He said the Park Service has no say over whether the BLM uses master leasing plans, but in the case of the plan adopted near the monument in Colorado, “It did provide a way to comment and take an overall look at where leasing and development would occur and how to think on a broader scale, how to handle those situations.”
BLM RETHINKING PRIORITIES
While the idea of a such a plan has been broached for Utah lands near Dinosaur, Utah BLM spokeswoman Lisa Bryant said the agency has paused work on any further such plans in the state as it works on aligning with Interior Department and Trump administration goals and faces a downsizing of the agency. Zinke is pursuing significant staff reductions in the BLM and other Interior agencies.
Master leasing plans entail a concentrated use of resources and the BLM is looking at how to best use its resources, Bryant said.
“We are re-evaluating what our capacity is to take on these large planning efforts and still move forward with some of our other priority work,” she said.
Although a previous BLM state director in Utah had deferred oil and gas leasing in proposed or pending master leasing plan areas, the BLM now is moving forward with evaluating bids by companies to have lands offered for leasing in those areas, she said.
She said the BLM hasn’t been directed by the new administration to stop undertaking master leasing plans, but its actions in Utah simply are based on prioritizing resources in line with the new administration’s goals.
“We are working very, very hard to make sure we are lining up with those priorities,” she said.
Lund said he is “certainly watching very carefully” to see if the Trump administration changes direction on the use of master leasing plans.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance industry group, said she has gotten no indication one way or the other from the Interior Department about whether it might steer away from the use of such plans. But she’d be happy to see them go away.
She calls them “another way for environmental groups to add yet another multi-year layer of land use planning on top of other multi-year layers of land use planning. They’re a needless additional bite at the same apple that’s meant to stall responsible energy development for many more years. We would hope that Secretary Zinke would rescind this 2010 policy that never went through a rulemaking process and does not have statutory authority, and get on with his agenda of energy independence.”
PRODUCT OF SALAZAR YEARS
Master leasing plans were among oil and gas reforms instituted by then-Interior-Secretary Ken Salazar of Colorado after the BLM, during the George W. Bush administration, offered 77 Utah leases that included land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Salazar also canceled the leases.
The master leasing plans are intended to be collaborative efforts addressing a range of issues, not just proximity to parks and monuments. Such a plan recently was put into place in the Moab area, in part to address conflicts with recreation, and another has been implemented by the Grand Junction Field Office, primarily for acreage north of the Colorado River.
The BLM has been considering other master leasing plans in Utah, including ones that would take in acreage in the area of the San Rafael Swell outside Green River, and another closer to Colorado, in the Cisco area of Interstate 70.
Bryant said some of the proposals involved lands where BLM officials had discretion about whether to create the plans because they didn’t meet all the eligibility criteria for such plans.
She said the BLM is looking closely into whether to pursue completion of plans, especially where they are discretionary, or whether some other management approach is more appropriate.
BLM officials in Colorado haven’t received any directions from officials in Washington regarding changes in the use of master leasing plans, state BLM spokesman Steven Hall said.
But the BLM is looking into whether to continue work on a proposed master leasing plan for the South Park area, or to try to accomplish things it would hope to accomplish with such a plan through a new resource management plan it is working on for its eastern Colorado field office.
Hall said while there has been considerable local support for a master leasing plan in South Park, the same hasn’t been the case in southwest Colorado, where there have been differing opinions, including among local counties, about whether such a plan is needed.
That plan would address things such as impacts of oil and gas development to Mesa Verde National Park and area residents.
Currently, the BLM is busy with higher-priority work in southwest Colorado, and if it wants to pursue a leasing plan there it would need to get resources to do so, Hall said.
Ashley Korenblat, chief executive officer of Western Spirit Cycling, based in Moab, was involved in the master leasing plan process there. She said it offers benefits to energy companies by letting them know what they’ll need to do under the plan.
“It takes away a lot of risk, really, from the operator if they know what the plan’s going to be,” she said.
Bryant said BLM field office resource management plans still guide leasing decisions, and whether areas require certain lease stipulations or environmental protections. While the BLM’s environmental assessment acknowledges the potential for impacts to Dinosaur and its visitors from the proposed leasing, two of the leases near the park would include measures to minimize noise and light impacts, despite the lack of a master leasing plan.
The environmental assessment process will allow the BLM to hear from the public and determine if further measures to minimize impacts are needed, Bryant said.
Earlier this month, the BLM removed acreage near Zion National Park from a lease sale planned for September after receiving more than 40,000 public comments and encountering opposition to the park-area leasing from the Zion gateway towns of Springdale and Toquerville, Washington County, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert. Earlier this year, the BLM bowed to local pressure and dropped a proposal to offer leases west of Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand County.
Now activists are turning their attentions to protecting Dinosaur.
“The proposal to drill near Dinosaur National Monument is wrong on its face,” Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, said during last week’s teleconference with reporters.
He believes that under the Trump administration, the BLM is bringing forward more proposals for leasing near parks and monuments, as well as in important greater sage-grouse habitat, to cater to fossil-fuel developers.
Korenblat said the presence of lands adjacent to parks and monuments can attract local investment in other industries such as recreation, but such investment is threatened if the land is leased for energy development.
Bruce Lavoie, who runs river trips through Dinosaur as area manager of OARS Dinosaur/Don Hatch River Expeditions, expressed alarm at the prospect of oil and gas drilling occurring nearby.
“It’s truly a one-of-a-kind landscape. It would be a shame to see its breathtaking views and (wildlife) habitat reduced by development,” he said.
NOTION OF THREAT DISPUTED
Sgamma takes issue with the notion that oil and gas leasing poses a threat to nearby parks and monuments.
She said park and monument boundaries “were set for a reason, to protect the important natural resource values contained within them. They do not imply a buffer around them for some unspecified distance that carries a veto over adjacent multiple-use lands.
“Rather, BLM conducts land use planning through an open, public process to determine the uses of lands, including energy development, and what types of restrictions will be put on them.
“Just because lands are near a national park doesn’t mean they should be off-limits to productive activities in all cases. After that public process, if lands are indeed designated as available for leasing they also contain restrictions to ensure that any development on the leases is done in an environmentally protective manner that does not ‘threaten’ the parks,” Sgamma said.