The leasing protest game

Conservationists' gritty strategy yields small fruit

  Updated April 16, 2008


Last August, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated a remarkable victory: At the Partnership's request, the Bureau of Land Management in Utah pulled 49,000 acres slated for oil and gas leasing from an upcoming auction.

"Every single parcel we protested was removed," says Joel Webster, who wrote the group's formal protest.

Webster and his colleagues at the Partnership, which represents 25 sportsmen's organizations, had high hopes that the victory marked a turning point for conservationists trying to keep the BLM from auctioning environmentally sensitive public lands to the oil and gas industry. But in February of this year, their optimism was deflated when the very same Utah BLM, in a very similar lease sale, pulled only 10 percent of the 74,000 acres the Partnership had targeted. Having submitted a 15-page report full of scientific citations and the BLM's own data detailing how gas drilling would harm critical habitat for mule deer, sage grouse and other wildlife, the group was left scratching its head.

"There's a complete inconsistency in how BLM offices are handling protests over wildlife in lease sales," Webster says.

The Partnership's experience exemplifies the ups and downs of the protest game over the past seven years. It's been a gritty, sale-by-sale struggle against an agency that, pushed by a bullish industry and supported by the Bush administration, has auctioned off rights to the fossil fuels underneath millions of acres in the West.

A High Country News analysis reveals that conservationists are making some headway. In Utah, for example, protesters have convinced the BLM to jettison 308 of 1,521 controversial parcels since 2001. But major victories are rare, and which challenges succeed appears to depend on which BLM office is in charge - and who is filing the protest.

The BLM's policy for putting federal parcels up for bid to energy companies dates back to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. For many decades, the program generated little controversy, only flaring up when oil and gas prices spiked or the BLM sought to lease lands valued by conservationists. This happened in the late 1970s, when the federal government put portions of national forests around Yellowstone National Park on the auction block.

Today's leasing push, though, is unlike any other in BLM history. Driven by record high prices for natural gas and oil, and faced with diminishing reserves in long-producing basins, drilling companies and other speculators began pressing the BLM in the 1990s for bigger, and more lucrative, lease sales. For the most part, they got what they asked for. During the Clinton administration, however, conservationists were largely silent on the matter, even though the option of protesting leases had existed since 1987. (Congress established the protest process in response to Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt's attempt to lease lands in federally designated wilderness areas.)

John Leshy, the Interior Department's solicitor from 1993 to 2001, says the Clinton years saw few protests because "we tried pretty hard to stay out of controversial areas." The Bush administration, he says, has done the opposite, readily leasing parcels in important wildlife habitat and wilderness-quality lands.

Over the past seven years, the BLM has leased 17 million acres in the five major oil- and gas-producing states in the Interior West, to the tune of more than $500 million. In Wyoming alone - ground zero for oil and gas development on federal lands - the agency leased about 5 million acres between 2001 and 2007, according to HCN's analysis of BLM data. And there is no slowdown in sight: Hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in the Interior West will be auctioned off this year.

The industry largely drives the leasing program. Companies nominate parcels in areas the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service (the BLM administers minerals management in national forests, too) have set aside as suitable for leasing in their land-use plans. The BLM announces that those parcels will be available at its next quarterly auction, and companies place their bids accordingly, paying anywhere from the federal minimum of $2 an acre to thousands of dollars an acre. The winning bidders get the right to tap the land's energy resources.

"The whole way the system is structured is advantageous to the oil and gas industry, to the point where the industry is now making the decisions for the BLM," says Dave Albersworth of The Wilderness Society.

BLM officials often say that just because a lease is issued doesn't mean a well will actually be drilled. The agency can insist that operators stay away from sensitive areas, such as wildlife breeding habitat. And if and when an operator does apply for a drilling permit, the BLM can attach additional caveats.

"BLM ensures that the development of energy resources is done in an environmentally sound manner on all lands we manage," says Duane Spencer, BLM-Colorado's acting deputy state director for energy, lands and minerals.

Conservationists, not surprisingly, disagree. A lease gives oil and gas companies a vested right to develop the lands, making it difficult for the BLM to say no later, says Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. And the agency is very susceptible to pressure from industry, says Steve Belinda, who worked as a biologist for the BLM and Forest Service for 16 years in Wyoming and New Mexico before becoming head energy expert for the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "It used to be that companies knew they couldn't drill in the winter in deer and elk habitat," he says. "Now they are pushing to remove this impediment and drill all year round."

The BLM's aggressive leasing program is directly tied to a Bush administration that has made energy development the agency's highest priority. A few months after taking office in 2001, George W. Bush issued an executive order directing federal agencies to "expedite energy-related projects." Subsequent memos from the BLM's Washington headquarters to state-level managers reinforced the message, including a 2003 memo instructing state offices to not "unduly restrict access to the public lands for oil and gas development." Any stipulations placed on leases to mitigate impacts on wildlife had to be "the least restrictive necessary to accomplish the desired protection." The following year, the agency told state directors that any time they decided not to issue a lease, they had to provide a letter to the operators interested in the tract, stating the reasons for the BLM's decision.

"One reason I left (the BLM) was that I was told to do nothing but energy work even though my job was about wildlife," says Belinda, who quit the agency in February of 2006. "I spent 95 percent of my time on energy planning. I was told, 'If you don't like this job, get another one.' "

 

Not coincidentally, environmental and sportsmen's groups began filing lease sale protests around the same time the BLM began implementing its new policy. Only a few protests were lodged with the BLM in 2000 and 2001, but by 2004 the trickle had become a torrent. In Colorado, for example, 95 percent of the acres offered for lease in 2005 were protested, mostly over wildlife concerns. And 2007 was a banner year for controversy: In Colorado, for example, the BLM fielded more than 1,000 lease sale challenges, according to agency figures.

The protest option has become a well-used tool: These days, almost every lease sale announcement is followed by at least one formal protest. "We're pretty constant in getting a high percentage of our lease sales protested," says Terry Catlin, leasing team leader for the BLM's Utah state office.

And some state BLM offices are listening. Last November, the BLM in Utah canceled a lease sale altogether, before any formal protests had even been filed, reportedly in response to the concerns of state wildlife managers. In Colorado, about 5 percent of the protests typically have been upheld, with most of the contested parcels permanently removed from lease sales, according to Jim Sample of the BLM's Colorado state office. In November 2007, the BLM purged 23 parcels covering 31,000 acres in Grand County, Colo., in response to concerns from environmental groups, local officials and the Colorado Division of Wildlife about potential development of greater sage grouse habitat.

Yet just to the south, in New Mexico, a purged parcel is a rare thing. Environmentalists in the state challenged 933 parcels between 2001 and 2007, but the BLM withdrew just 16 of them. And six of those parcels were offered again in later sales.

"That's fairly common," says Greg Shoop, a senior mineral leasing specialist with the BLM's main office in Washington, D.C. "We determine that we have some additional work to do, and then we address that and re-offer the parcel." For example, the BLM might assuage wildlife concerns by placing stipulations on the lease barring drilling during breeding season, or in migration corridors.