Since 2010, whenever a parcel of land was nominated to be leased by an oil and gas company, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) went through a significant review period. There were site visits, comments when draft environmental assessments were released, and an additional 30 days of public comment once the sale was live. But Tim Spisak, acting assistant director of energy, minerals, and realty management for the BLM, said all that review wasn’t efficient for energy production.
“We’ve gotten virtually every parcel that is offered is being protested… So, we’re trying to find a more streamlined way to get parcels developed” he said.
In late January, the BLM updated its oil and gas leasing policy to incentivize more drilling on public lands. It was an internal decision, rather than a rule-making, which would have come with public comment. The updated policy changes how the public weighs in on the leasing process, and some are concerned faster leasing will minimize public input, environmental review, and local power.
According to the Instruction Memorandum, streamlining that process included reducing public comment from 30 days to 10 on a given lease, cutting the timeline from around 16 months to six to bring a parcel of land from nomination to sale, and limiting postponements of leases both in number and authority. In short, Spisak said the goal is to increase how many leases go up for sale on BLM land to push more production from oil and gas companies.
“They need a certain amount of inventory of oil and gas leases out there to be able to develop their plays. So, having that inventory provided will lead to more production,” he said.
The number of nominations has already gone up. The first sale of the updated policy in Wyoming will yield more than double the nominated parcels the agency saw in the recent past.
But the updated policy has environmental advocates concerned. Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, said the updated oil and gas leasing reform means much less in-depth reviews going forward. She explains her interpretation of BLM’s policy.
“We're no longer requiring site visits, we’re no longer requiring environmental analysis, we’re no longer requiring consultation and time to talk to surface owners or state agencies or the public,” Culver said.
And public comment periods won’t just be shorter, but will likely take place after environmental reviews are already done. Culver said one cost of less public input is challenging problematic leases.
"I think what we’re seeing in Wyoming is certainly parcels nominated and some sold in important sage grouse habitat, within wildlife migration corridors, within crucial winter range. If those sales do go through and if they are not successfully challenged, then we’ll eventually start to see the impacts on the ground,” she said.
Culver said advocates will have to be much more vigilant in holding developers accountable. Brian Rutledge, Vice President of the National Audobon Society and member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, said environmental review may be in place, but with such limited public review he wondered who will catch developers not following stipulations to protect sage grouse.
Another change in the policy weakens the ability to defer leases and moves power to the national BLM office. Before this policy, state BLM offices could sign off on postponing a lease. While the national office was involved, there was more local authority.
This is an issue in the Greater Little Mountain Area, in southwest Wyoming, which has avoided leasing due to lengthy collaborative discussions on the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan.
Joshua Coursey, with the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said, “hunters, anglers, drillers, miners, hikers have all worked together to try to maintain this special place."
And he fears the updated policy will end those collaborative efforts with 700,000 nominated acres up for sale in December of this year. The Deputy Director of Policy and Programs, Brian Steed, wrote in the Instruction Memorandum, “the BLM will not routinely defer leasing when waiting for an RMP amendment or revision to be signed.”
Mark Squillace, law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said, “this is exactly the kind of document, or memorandum, that really cries out for the public to be engaged.”
In addition to environmental concerns, Squillace said he believes there are legal issues with the updates. He points to the agency’s new rules with NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance, lack of individualized sales notice, and the ability to move forward with lease sales with protests pending.
Squillace said he doesn’t think this policy will be great for oil and gas either. If lease sales are rushed, there could be mistakes or issues that land the BLM and a company in court.
“I think they’re just inviting more challenges and problems for their decisions,” he said.
Oil and gas advocates, however, welcome the change. After all, president of the Western Energy Alliance Kathleen Sgamma saw the past policy as burdensome and killing lease sales through ‘paralysis by analysis.’
"Anything that can be done to make that time frame more predictable is welcome, because for years companies can’t move forward at all if they don’t have a lease,” she said.
Sgamma said environmental review and public input is still happening, and that this leasing process is just the first step in a long line of analysis.
"If you constantly require more process and study, then you never actually get to a point where you can lease and develop. That is their goal,” Sgamma said.
For now, field offices are preparing two lease sales at once with the new policy doubling auctions per district office. After December 2018, local offices will transition to dealing with one sale every three months. Sgamma, Culver, and even Governor Matt Mead's office accept that the potential challenges and successes of the policy will be more apparent when the first sale occurs this coming winter.