It's still a giveaway


Some of the land recently marked for drilling in Utah may be pulled from the oil and gas auction block. In late summer and early fall, six resource management plans were rushed through at a break neck speed, opening up 80 percent of the 11 million acres in the planning areas for energy development.

Cultural and wilderness conservation groups, as well as other government agencies like the National Park Service, argued that the planning process was too fast and that they did not have time to adequately respond to the radical changes that the plans outlined for Utah's public lands.  NPS officials were particularly concerned that air quality within the parks would degrade if the lands surrounding them were opened for drilling.

At the time, these grievances seemed to fall on deaf ears at the BLM. After some urging from U.S. Senators, meetings with NPS and pressure from the incoming Obama administration (not to mention plummeting energy prices), however, some of the lands that ring Utah's national parks will be withdrawn from the oil and gas lease sales slated for later this month.

This is a small step backward for the Bush administration's last minute drill, drill, drill! campaign. However, it's not exactly cause for celebration. The change -- withdrawing 38,000 acres from drilling -- is a minor adjustment to majorly flawed plans, and the vast majority of the contested land is still going to be leased on December 19.

Dec 04, 2008 12:29 PM
First, one comment about Emily's post.

What do you mean by: “six resource management plans were rushed through at a break neck speed” and “the planning process was too fast and that they did not have time to adequately respond to the radical changes”? I’m confused. Were required public comment periods not allowed by the BLM? Didn’t the public get 90 days to comment on the Draft RMP/EIS, as well as an opportunity (30 days) to protest the Final? I wrote my Master’s thesis in about 3 months; you’re telling me 3 months isn’t enough time to read and comment on a BLM plan? Was the despicable error that BLM did not extend this comment period beyond 90 days? Why does it matter that the plans went from Final to Record of Decision on-schedule? There is no chance for the public to comment or protest after the Final. What difference would it have made if the BLM took one year between the Final and ROD? Even if the park service or conservation groups found something new to comment on in that period of time, what could they do outside of a comment period?

Secondly—bare with me here, this is long—I ranted about this AP article about this issue:[…]/ALeqM5iR6iksPv6MUmw4jraPWPGHWAuGsgD94G82JO0

To me, the deciding factor in exactly how horrible of an offense this is on part of the Bush Administration depends on whether these parcels were nominated by industry for the lease sale, or whether the BLM itself put these parcels up for lease.

The vast majority of leases are nominated by the oil and gas industry for regular (quarterly) lease sales. The BLM is a completely passive participant when this is the case. If a company nominates some parcels, they go up for auction. If this was the case for the areas next to the parks, this is not a “Bush administration ‘fire sale.’” (Unless, of course, if someone within the government asked industry to nominate these parcels. But if this was purely an issue of industry interest, the Bush administration had nothing to do with these parcels being nominated).

However, if the BLM itself nominated these parcels and put them up for auction, which it can do (see Roan Plateau), then there definitely was collusion by the Bush administration and it makes this intentional and quite despicable. One of Sierra’s quotes makes be believe this is indeed the case:

"Roy said that when he asked Selma Sierra what was going on, she replied: 'We added some tracts, sorry we didn't notify you.'"

If industry did nominate these parcels, I fail to see how they would be added after the fact. I would guess that all the industry-nominated leases were submitted, then Sierra got a call from Washington telling her that these controversial parcels would also be added to the list. Yes sir Mr. Cheney, sir!

Okay, with that out of the way, let me try to argue that managing with buffers makes no sense from a land management standpoint and that BLM would have a hard time denying these leases from a legal and consistency perspective.

I guess it’s quite obvious that the lands the National Park Service want excluded from oil and gas development are not national parks and are not managed by the NPS. What’s the point of a National Park boundary when it seems some folks want surrounding lands managed like a National Park? So let’s say the government adds a 10-mile buffer on public land to every National Park, which would receive park-like restrictions. So then would we need another buffer to protect values of that buffer? An extreme question maybe, but can’t you see how buffers can be never-ending?

The government would be heading down a very slippery slope and set a precedent by buffering National Parks in Utah. The Utah BLM State Director is right that no policy exists for this, and there’s a reason for that. Why do you think there has never been this kind of buffer applied in the US? Because this has been discussed in detail before (even in environmentally friendly DOI’s such as Bruce Babbitt’s) and they’ve come to the realization that it’s infeasible and doesn’t make sense. Let’s slide down this slope, shall we? Let’s say we buffer all National Parks. Why should it stop there? Don’t State Parks have scenic values that warrant protection? What about National Wildlife Refuges? Wilderness areas? Wilderness Study Areas? Come on folks, these special designations apply to what is inside of these areas, not what is outside. Managing for values outside the special area opens a whole new can of worms in public land management. In addition to oil and gas development, should we close these areas to vehicle travel? Rights-of-way? Any other actions that would be visible looking outside from inside the park?

All stipulations on oil and gas development on federal minerals must be developed within a land use plan, BLM Resource Management Plans, to be exact. Not one RMP has these stipulations for buffers. If lands are not closed in an RMP, they are available for leasing and development. So BLM would have a very hard time making the case that these areas should not be leased. In fact, an oil or gas company would have grounds to sue the BLM for making an arbitrary and capricious decision to close those areas to development outside of their normal process.

The best way to handle this issue might be to use the tools BLM has in its tool box to protect scenic values. All BLM lands have a Visual Resource Management (VRM) Class designation. VRM Classes range from Class I, which is extremely restrictive and is typically only used for wilderness areas and would allow only very minor modifications of the landscape, to VRM Class IV, which would allow a strip mine. A VRM Class II designation would allow for only minor modifications of the landscape. Under this designation, BLM could require oil and gas operators to hide their infrastructure around topographic features and/or camouflage. This would be the best and most defenseable way to protect the viewshed from the park onto BLM land.

I agree looking beyond the arches in Arches National Park and seeing a gas well stinks. And I fully agree that if these parcels were put up for auction by the BLM and not oil and gas companies, this is yet another Bush Administration give away. However, I don’t think that closing a 10-mile buffer around the parks to oil and gas development is a logical solution for this problem.
National Parks and Clean Air Act, etc.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Dec 10, 2008 10:26 PM
Niko, why isn't a 10-mile buffer reasonable? If the field is big enough, it can be horizontally drilled from miles away.

Second, it's more than just seeing drilling rigs or, later, pumpjacks, storage batteries, etc. Air quality in and around many national parks is already deteriorating. No, not all the pollution sources are local; nonetheless, there's no need ot add to those that are.

And, BLM itself has more in its toolkit than you suggest. It's just a matter of using it. And using it FULLY, not in a rushed manner.
Directional drilling
Dec 11, 2008 10:17 AM
Hi Steve. Oil and gas operators typically cannot drill directionally over a distance of 2,500 to 3,000 ft laterally, and that's in the absolutely best geologic conditions. Check out some of the writing Ken Kreckel has done for The Wilderness Society, like this op-ed he did for the Denver Post ( in which he writes, “With a horizontal reach of up to 2,500 feet, which the BLM has stated is within industry capabilities, pads can be spaced at one or two per mile.”

Directional drilling is different from horizontal drilling, and you are correct that operators can drill farther laterally when employing horizontal drilling technologies. But horizontal drilling of gas pockets in the Rocky Mountain energy states is relatively rare. Much of the gas pockets around here are small, thin pockets, stacked like potato chips in a bag. To penetrate many different skinny layers of gas, they must enter the gas play vertically, by drilling directionally, not horizontally. My point is that accessing the gas from 10 miles away is no way feasible with today’s technology.

I agree air quality is also an important issue and BLM should do all it can to require clean drill rigs engines and other mitigation.
Dec 11, 2008 01:03 PM
This is precisely why I am suspicious of the claims about how drilling will take place in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

The geology there is better for directional drilling the long horizontal distances they claim, but I rarely see this type of drilling done elsewhere.

I always hear excuses as to why it cannot be done.

I suspect that if ANWR is ever opened it will be drilled however the drill rig operators want and the rosy story of drilling large areas from limited drill sites will be conveniently forgotten.

directional drilling
Dec 11, 2008 03:51 PM
Ron, It's truly a pity directional drilling isn't required more in the Rockies. Ken Kreckel has written some good comments and papers showing that it's always possible to some degree, yet it's only being required in some fields such as Pinedale. Companies often talk about how it's not "economically feasible." Well then wait until it is. Additionally, Kreckel talks about how consolidating wells and drilling many wells directionally from one pad can actually save a company money in travel and maintenance.

Companies should be forced to use these and other technologies. Hopefully we'll see more of this under Obama's Department of the Interior.
I hope we move that direction
Dec 12, 2008 02:12 PM
Great comment niko - I could not agree with you more.

It seems like it may be more than simply not fully internalizing the externalities of surface damage.

Industries can be reluctant to move to an equally or slightly more profitable business model for a myriad of reasons - probably mostly related to inertia and fear of change.

Sometimes regulation can actually spur business to use more efficient methods that are actually more profitable, but for some reason they have been slow to innovate.

The many efficiencies of drilling from fewer sites seems like it almost has to be more profitable, and knowing some of the drillers I am quite confident that they haven't fully considered how much good they could do themselves by innovating.