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Trump’s administration blocks drilling near a national park

The president’s commitment to oil and gas development gets tested.

 

For 41 years, Ken Fosha and his family have operated a dude ranch near Rocky Mountain National Park, in a little valley in the headwaters of the Colorado River. Fosha voted for President Donald Trump and, in general, likes what he hears about the new administration’s determination to expand oil and gas leasing.

But Fosha and his family found themselves protesting what will be one of Trump’s first auctions of oil and gas leases on public lands. That’s because it included parcels on their private land, Drowsy Water Ranch, and in the adjoining public land where they take their guests on trail rides. Fosha was delighted earlier this week when the Bureau of Land Management announced it would not include Grand County parcels in its June 8 auction.

“We gave a cheer,” said Fosha, who also chairs the county tourism board. He shudders to think of his picturesque surroundings following in the footsteps of places like Parachute and Rifle, Colorado, where rural landscapes, lifestyles and air quality have been degraded by drilling equipment, air pollution and heavy industry traffic. “It’s ridiculous that they would even think about coming into this land — only a quarter of a mile or less away from the Colorado River and the Colorado River Headways Scenic Byway — to try to do oil and gas development.”

Guests enjoy a trail ride at a Grand County, Colorado, dude ranch where proposed drilling was just rejected.
Courtesy Drowsy Water Ranch.
The decision to withhold 27,000 acres in Grand County, Colorado, from a BLM lease sale was an unexpected victory for conservation after the torrent of pro-fossil fuel policy moves announced by the Trump administration. The decision suggests there are some places too valuable for scenic beauty or tourism for even the Trump administration to support drilling. Still, the administration didn’t indicate that rejecting these leases signals any inclination to temper its promotion of fossil fuels. Trump’s executive order and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s secretarial order late last month called for expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands and launched an effort to remove bureaucratic impediments to development. This includes reviewing a 2016 rule that limits the harm caused by drilling in national parks.

Courtney Whiteman, a spokeswoman for the BLM in Colorado, said the decision to remove the Grand County leases from the upcoming lease sale was made in Colorado in coordination with Washington, D.C. The primary factor was local opposition but declining interest from industry in leasing public land for oil and gas drilling also played a role. These parcels were nominated 10 years ago when oil prices were much higher. They could be considered for future lease sales, Whiteman said, “but we don’t have any plans either way at this point.”

Environmental groups that also protested the leases were surprised to be responding to positive news out of the Trump administration. “I see this as a hopeful indication that there’s room for common sense in all this rhetoric,” said Nada Culver, a Colorado-based senior counsel of the Wilderness Society. Culver said the decision was heartening because it showed that three months into the Trump administration, the BLM was not simply doing industry’s bidding. She says the decision shows the agency, even under Trump, still is considering how local people want to use public land, whether drilling in a certain area makes financial sense and whether some places are too important for recreation, preservation or wildlife to drill. “I’d like to read these tea leaves as saying those will continue to be important considerations.”

Other environmentalists were skeptical, given the Trump administration’s many actions to weaken protections for nature and people and promote fossil fuels. In fact, on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency started rolling back an Obama administration rule restricting methane emissions from oil and gas. Zinke is moving towards rescinding the BLM’s hydraulic fracturing rule and supports congressional efforts to strike the agency’s methane rule. That record makes some environmentalists doubt that Zinke personally played a role in the decision to reject the Grand County leases. “I would be shocked if it came from on high,” Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said. “Everything Zinke has done since he took office is to benefit the fossil fuel industry.”

Industry groups that have been cheerleading the Trump administration’s energy policy also seemed perplexed by the Grand County decision, given that the proposal to allow these leases originated with the Obama administration and would have required companies to follow procedures to protect the environment. “Rather than sticking to those analyses and educating Grand County on how leasing is compatible with protecting the land, the BLM just deferred the leases,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

But in Grand County, where Trump won with 52 percent of the vote, the decision was seen by some as consistent with the president’s promises to invigorate rural economies. The county spoke out forcefully against the leases and officially protested them. County Commissioner Merrit Linke, a Republican, said none of the wells drilled in the county over the decades produced much oil or gas. Tourism is the big driver of the local economy, and Linke said oil and gas development would disrupt the scenery and wildlife that draw people to hunt, fish and horseback ride in the area. “The bigger picture is Trump and the Trump administration are supporting economic growth,” he said, “and oil and gas exploration is not going to improve our economy here in Grand County.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.