Rush to sell off public land raises the stakes
Memo to Press: More than two million acres are set to be auctioned off before the end the of year, despite broad public support for public lands protections.
While President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been making headlines for their efforts to downsize national monuments and allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they have also been setting in motion policies and plans that would grease the wheels for massive, indiscriminate oil and gas leasing on public lands. The results are coming to life this September and December, with millions of acres up for lease, and will have impacts for decades to come.
The rush to sell off as much public land as possible raises the stakes for the administration’s blatant disregard for public input, transparency, and accountability--not only because of the sheer volume of lands affected, but also because of their significance for wildlife habitat, climate, and western communities and the resulting conflicts these lease sales could cause. To put the sales into perspective, the proposed 2.4 million acres are about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, or the size of the entire Yellowstone National Park. This memo explores what will happen in the weeks and months ahead and explains the consequences.
When will the sales happen?
The lease sales have been made public on state BLM web pages, and the September sales have been formally noticed and posted on EnergyNet, the online service that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) uses for lease sales. The December sales are expected to be formally noticed in October. BLM will notify the press and public with a sale notice 45 days in advance.
What has changed to open the leasing floodgates?
The Interior Department has issued a number of policy changes and directives under Zinke’s direction that are leading to increased leasing, with one notable theme: shutting the public out. Secretary Zinke has made it harder and harder for citizens and local communities to raise concern, and is simultaneously pushing BLM to lease more and more as fast as possible:
- Lease as fast as possible. Most notably, Interior issued a new oil and gas leasing policy this past January, which directs BLM state offices to review proposed leasing parcels within six months of receiving interest from a company. This is hardly enough time to review proposals in higher conflict areas where more thorough environmental analysis is necessary and solicit input from impacted communities.
- Lease as much as possible. Under the previous policy, BLM was taking a more thoughtful approach to leasing that required conducting environmental analysis and soliciting public input. BLM was rotating lease sales among field offices to give the offices ample time to review proposed parcels, make site visits if necessary, consult with local governments and other agencies and take public comments throughout the process.
The new policy directs BLM to minimize environmental analysis as much as possible, and removes requirements to provide for public comments. The policy also put an end to rotating lease sales, so now every lease sale includes all of the eligible parcels across the whole state, leading to large lease sales and less time for both the agency and the public to review them.
- Less scrutiny, more politics. In addition, under the previous policy, BLM was given permission to defer parcels if the agency determined the public interest would be better served by further analysis and planning prior to making any decision whether or not to lease. But now under DOI’s new policy guidance, BLM has been highly encouraged to not defer parcels and must get the approval of Zinke and his political team in D.C. before doing so.
- 10 days to review hundreds of thousands of acres proposed for lease. Under the new policy, BLM is not required to share any information with the public about parcels being offered for sale until the agency posts a sale notice 45 days prior to the lease sale, for a 10-day protest period. This means the public - and local governments - could have no opportunity to weigh in until the formal protest period, and at that point would have only 10 days to review an entire lease sale. This worst case scenario is playing out in the Nevada September lease sale, where BLM posted no information whatsoever about the sale until the protest period began in late July, and the public had just 10 days to review nearly 300,000 thousand acres of public land being proposed for lease.
The public lands up for lease include controversial parcels in nearly every Western state:
- Colorado. In December, BLM is set to lease 236,009 acres, which includes protected sage grouse habitat, the embattled North Fork Valley and big game habitat and migration corridors. Concern over the sale has prompted the Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to issue a letter to the BLM, standing up for the natural resources and communities in the state, and calling into question the now limited review process for the lease sale impacts. TheNorth Fork Valley is a vibrant hub of family farms, abundant wildlife and world-class recreation opportunities and has been featured as one of fifteen places around the country deemed Too Wild to Drill.
- Wyoming. In southwest Wyoming, BLM will auction off roughly 1.1 million acres between September and December sales this year. More than half of these planned lease sales overlap with areas the Wyoming Game and Fish Department classify as crucial seasonal habitats, including winter range and migration corridors for deer, elk and pronghorn—areas that are essential to helping these animals survive the harsh Wyoming winters. While a handful of the original lease parcels have been deferred (less than 5,000 acres), the land left on the table will result in one of the largest and most egregious sales we’ve seen in one state alone in decades.
- Utah. For September and December lease sales, BLM has proposed roughly 535,000 acres of leases on sensitive public lands throughout the state, including in popular hunting areas like the Book Cliffs, in culturally sensitive lands east of Bears Ears National Monument, near national parks (Hovenweep National Monument), and in still wild, undeveloped backcountry (White River).
- Arizona. There are currently zero producing federal oil and gas leases in Arizona and land use plans say development is “only a remote possibility”, yet BLM is set to lease 4,201 acres in Arizona with no environmental review - including parcels near Petrified Forest National Park and the Little Colorado River.
- New Mexico. Roughly 140,000 acres will be auctioned in New Mexico between September and December sales, including lands in the Chihuahuan Desert Rivers region and proposed areas of critical environmental concern. While some parcels were recently deferred near Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the BLM is moving forward the bulk of the lease sales proposed despite there being an ongoing planning effort that has yet to be finalized to identify the best uses for land.
- Nevada. The BLM is set to auction off 720,000 acres in September and December, including important sage-grouse habitat and lands with wilderness characteristics. For the September sale, the BLM gave no notice of this sale before giving 10 days for the public to protest.
- Montana. Nearly 75% of the parcels proposed for a December sale in Montana are important sage grouse habitat. The BLM is auctioning off 68,000 acres, including leases in the Big Hole and Beaverhead watersheds, two world-class blue-ribbon fisheries home to one of the only remaining populations of the arctic grayling in the lower 48.
Will the Administration back down in some cases?
A handful of the parcels put forward for September and December have been deferred – but these are hardly acts of stewardship by Secretary Zinke. The recent lease deferrals have been announced for issues such as failure to consult with Tribes, concerns from the National Park Service about impacts to nearby parks, and requests from local governments to protect their communities and wildlife habitat. These last-minute deferrals show the danger of rushing forward with ill-conceived leasing proposals, and they also do little to resolve the larger problem - the handful of deferrals are contextually insignificant and most proposed leases with major conflicts are moving forward undeferred.
Americans oppose indiscriminate drilling
We’ll conclude this update by underscoring that Americans do not support unneeded, unwise, and indiscriminate oil and gas drilling on public lands. While there are several national polls showing broad support for sound science-based conservation, the most recent comes from a poll of mountain west states that found:
- 70 percent oppose opening public lands close to national parks and monuments for oil and gas drilling.
- 67 percent oppose increasing public land available for oil and gas development by reducing conservation efforts on behalf of potentially endangered wildlife, like the sage-grouse, and
- 64 percent oppose rolling back environmental regulations on oil and gas development.
- Tony Iallonardo, 202-429-2699, Tony_Iallonardo@tws.org