When can the BLM say 'no'?

  • A natural gas drilling rig in western Colorado near Palisade

    Kevin Moloney
 

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article, "The anatomy of an energy lease."

If a BLM or Forest Service management plan OKs an area for leasing, BLM officials say they have little power to prevent drilling. "The bar (for withholding land from leasing) is pretty high," says Duane Spencer, the BLM’s Colorado branch chief of fluid minerals: The agency, he says, must prove that there is no effective way to mitigate the harmful effects of drilling.

The BLM upholds only about 5 percent of lease protests, says Spencer, because it pre-screens parcels before offering them. The Colorado BLM received 38 protests for 106 parcels offered in the February auction. It upheld just one of them, refunding the bidder’s money after determining that drilling could harm the San Miguel River.

The BLM does have the power to deny leases, but it isn’t using that power, says John Leshy, who was the top Department of Interior lawyer under the Clinton administration. "It’s absolutely clear that the agencies have discretion (about offering leases). It’s not that their hands are tied, it’s that they’re making a policy choice to accommodate industry."

Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture, says that the government could rescind leases in roadless national forest tracts that gain permanent protection — provided there’s not already "a valid existing (lease) right." But leases are considered valid as soon as they’re issued, so the claim seems disingenuous. Undoing a valid lease requires an act of Congress, according to Christie Achenbach of the Forest Service. Or at least an act of the Interior secretary. Interior has bought or traded out leases on occasion; when President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the department spent nearly $20 million to buy back 53,000 acres of coal leases.

Ironically, the best hope for undoing leases may lie in the benevolence of industry itself. On Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, companies recently donated or sold more than 10,000 acres of leases to conservation groups. The companies "made a decision that (drilling) is not worth the public backlash," Leshy says. Sen. Conrad Burns, R, has proposed a bill to uphold the ban on additional leasing on the Front and allow the government to permanently retire the transferred leases.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.