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Drilling threatens Dinosaur National Monument — again

Old public-lands battles are rekindled as Interior prioritizes oil and gas.

 

For several years, Dinosaur National Monument enjoyed a respite from the oil and gas leasing that had threatened this natural wonder straddling the Utah-Colorado border. People visit not just to behold its extraordinary fossils but also to take in the deep canyons carved by the Yampa and Green rivers, high desert plateaus and distant mountain peaks. The Obama administration declined to lease parcels near the monument until it could consider competing priorities in a public process.

Now, under President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed offering one lease abutting the monument and several more within view of its visitors’ center. Monument Superintendent Mark Foust has asked the BLM to remove two of these parcels from a lease sale scheduled for December, fearing that drilling will damage the pristine air quality, dark night skies and nearly limitless views. “These vistas are fundamental to the visitor experience at the Monument,” Foust wrote in a May letter. Monday is deadline for public comments.

Storm clouds build up over Dinosaur National Monument. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed an oil and gas lease bordering the monument.

Dinosaur National Monument’s new drilling threat provides a preview of how the Trump administration’s approach to fossil fuel development on public land and in federal waters may impact beloved and fragile Western places. In executive orders in March and April, Trump called for expanding and expediting drilling in federal lands and waters, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke fleshed out the pro-drilling strategies in secretarial orders in March and July.

This determination to ramp up drilling likely will revive old conflicts, sparking more protests and lawsuits. Already the Trump team is backtracking from Obama administration efforts to head off litigation by getting earlier public input on which areas are appropriate for drilling and which others are better left for recreation, wildlife, grazing or other uses. If these struggles end up in court, they could snarl energy projects for years, backfiring on industry and Trump. “I would predict a great increase in litigation, as an attempt to slow it all down: That’s what (President George W.) Bush found out,” said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University.

As a first order of business, Trump’s Interior Department launched an assault on Obama-era regulations designed to heighten environmental protections and drilling safety. Targets include the BLM’s methane and hydraulic fracturing rules, protections for drilling inside national parks and national wildlife refuges and an Environmental Protection Agency methane rule.

The Trump administration has already asked the GOP-controlled Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. It also plans more offshore leasing in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and may reject a rule designed to prevent disasters like the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But rolling back such rules takes months or years, because the administration is legally required to conduct environmental analyses and get public comment. Proposed rollbacks will likely prompt lawsuits from states and environmental groups, creating delays and uncertainty for all involved.

Nonetheless, the oil industry is optimistic. “Without the political will to move forward during the Obama administration, we saw activity slow or even grind to a halt in some areas,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group. “Just the wherewithal to clear some bureaucratic hurdles and not throw up new obstacles should help encourage energy development.”

Meanwhile, Zinke is trying to speed up the work of BLM field offices. In early July, Zinke ordered them to hold quarterly lease sales and reduce response times to 30 days for drilling permit applications. “Oil and gas production on federal lands is an important source of revenue and job growth in rural America but it is hard to envision increased investment on federal lands when a federal permit can take the better part of a year,” Zinke said. In 2016, processing an application took an average of 257 days, according to Interior, in part because complex modern projects require more sophisticated analysis.

But Democrats and environmentalists counter that industry already has plenty of places on federal land to drill. During this time of low oil and gas prices, companies have yet to drill on nearly 8,000 leases where they already have permits, according to the BLM.

Still, Zinke has asked for $16 million extra from Congress to accelerate leasing and permitting. Katharine MacGregor, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told a House committee in June that the BLM is relocating staff, filling vacancies in offices with serious backlogs.

As it prioritizes drilling, the new administration has put on the backburner a time-consuming process initiated by its predecessor. Master leasing plans were designed to reduce conflicts by doing early assessments of what places might be appropriate for leases in landscapes that are important for recreation, wildlife, or cultural or scenic values. If a master plan was pending for a certain area, the BLM temporarily deferred most leases. In Utah alone, that kept millions of acres off the auction block for several years — including near Dinosaur National Monument. Now the new administration has stopped automatically excluding those parcels. “We are aligning our available resources to support the administration's America First Energy Plan,” said Kent Hoffman, BLM-Utah deputy state director for lands and minerals.

The Trump team also ditched another new BLM process called Planning 2.0 that was created to get more upfront public input. And it’s scuttling another informal practice that helped minimize controversy. In recent years, the BLM had automatically deferred parcels in Utah known to have a high density of prehistoric dwellings or other archaeological remains, according to Bryant.

In 2015, the BLM yanked 36 of 54 parcels from a sale because of public outcry about the archaeological resources at risk. One was Alkali Ridge in southeastern Utah, a national historic landmark since 1985 that contains complex structures used by ancient Puebloan people more than 1,000 years ago. In 1991, the BLM designated it an area of critical environmental concern, “significant in the history and archaeology of the southwestern U.S.” Now the agency is considering offering leases there and in other rich archaeological areas of southeastern Utah. It’s taking public comment until July 27.

The BLM will consult with local tribes and other experts to see if it can both protect cultural resources and allow development, Bryant says. But archaeologists are skeptical. “In 20 years, (an oil) well will be dry, but if a 1,000-year-old site is destroyed, it is destroyed forever,’’ said Kevin Jones, Utah’s former state archaeologist.

So far, the new administration has not yet sparked major litigation by opening important areas to drilling, and there are places even Trump won’t drill. The BLM backed off offering leases near Rocky Mountain National Park in April and Zion National Park in June, after protests from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, and local communities and businesses.

As for Dinosaur National Monument, the BLM says it isn’t ignoring the Park Service’s concerns. The agency has asked for additional requirements on leases, such as hiding oil and gas equipment with rugged topography or camouflaging paint, and turning off lights and equipment at night. “BLM is working closely with (the Park Service) to determine if appropriate resource protection measures exist or can be developed to address their concerns before making any final leasing decisions,” said Lisa Bryant, a BLM spokeswoman in Utah.

Conservation groups warn that leasing special landscapes like those near Dinosaur will just stall energy development. That happened before: “People went to court and protested and dragged stuff out and created a big stink,” said Nicholas Lund of the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s exactly what master leasing plans and cooperative processes were designed to avoid.”

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