The Bureau of Land Management is planning to stick to shortened public comment timeframes in a Colorado oil and gas lease sale next March despite some of the acreage involved consisting of greater sage-grouse habitat.
That means it's ignoring a recent court order, which could put the sale in legal jeopardy, said Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity.
His group and the Western Watersheds Project are plaintiffs in a suit filed in Idaho against the federal government, challenging BLM leasing practices involving greater sage-grouse habitat.
In late September, U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush issued a preliminary injunction holding that starting with December lease sales, in the case of sales involving greater sage-grouse habitat the BLM can no longer follow parts of a new agency policy designed to streamline leasing by reducing public comment opportunities.
The conservation groups say the order means the BLM must reinstate 30-day public comment periods on environmental assessments, and allow for a 30-day protest period on any final lease sale notice.
The BLM's March sale includes several parcels in Moffat, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties that contain greater sage-grouse habitat.
Altogether, the sale includes almost 14,000 acres, including nearly 1,300 acres under the jurisdiction of the Grand Junction Field Office and almost 8,300 acres administered by the White River Field Office based in Meeker.
As of now, the BLM is planning a 15-day public scoping period, 15-day environmental analysis public review period and 10-day protest period for the March sale.
The BLM also is considering offering about 224,000 acres of leases in its December Colorado lease sale, including more than 100,000 acres in greater sage-grouse habitat in northwest Colorado.
In a letter to BLM Colorado acting state director Greg Shoop on Tuesday, representatives of the two conservation groups say the entire December sale should be postponed pending, at a minimum, compliance with the more expansive public comment provisions.
They contend that while the judge's order applies only to greater sage-grouse habitat, its reasoning applies more broadly and leaves any leasing by the agency under the shorter comment timeframes legally suspect, with the leases involved subject to being vacated.
At the least, they argue, the BLM must implement the longer comment periods in the case of the sage-grouse habitat planned for inclusion in the December sale, and postpone offering that acreage if that turns out to be necessary to comply with the judge's order.
The BLM has yet to say how the preliminary injunction will affect its December Colorado lease sale plans, if at all.
Asked about McKinnon's contention that it is ignoring the injunction in the case of the March sale, BLM spokesman Steven Hall said only that the agency "is evaluating the recent Idaho decision to determine what impact the decision may have on leasing in Colorado."
Said McKinnon, "BLM has already put December lease sales (in Colorado and other states) in jeopardy. Ignoring the court order would put March sales in jeopardy, too."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has been critical of the shortened comment periods. He also has called for deferring offering the greater sage-grouse habitat planned for inclusion in the December sale until the BLM finishes amending a 2015 sage-grouse management plan for Colorado.
The Western Energy Alliance industry group has said the government should appeal the injunction ruling.
It argues that the administration is legally entitled to set new policy and the ruling is an improper move by a judge to set policy from the bench.