Can drilling and recreation get along in Moab, Utah?

The BLM unveils the unprecedented plan to balance oil and gas with conservation in canyon country.

 

Neal Clark has been watching his feet a lot this fall day. The young environmental lawyer chose flipflops for our tour of the Utah desert with the blithe self-assurance of someone comfortable outdoors. Remarkably, he’s stumbled into thorns only once. Now, he cautiously threads a gap between banks of cryptobiotic crust. The castle-like colonies of microorganisms anchor the thin topsoil; no conscientious environmentalist would crush them. But Clark pauses: Just ahead, an oil rig towers on a patch of earth scraped bare to accommodate trucks and equipment. “There’s something ironic about tiptoeing around crust next to something like this,” he says wryly.

That incongruity stretches far beyond this spot. Clark, who works for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is showing me around some Bureau of Land Management parcels that are being developed for oil and gas near Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and some of the other scenic areas that have made nearby Moab an outdoor recreation mecca.

Fidelity Exploration & Production Company has 31 oil wells here, most drilled in recent years. Though the National Park Service and BLM credit Fidelity with keeping its facilities as low-impact as possible, many feel the development illustrates why the BLM should plan much more carefully where and how drilling is allowed. “This is one of the most spectacular places on the planet,” Clark argues. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to allow oil companies to disturb this landscape.”

Hoping to strike a better balance, in August, the BLM released a draft “master leasing plan” for nearly 800,000 federal acres here that would significantly curtail future development near national parks, trails and other sensitive sites. It proposes to put 145,000 acres off-limits, up from 753, and to increase the acreage where surface energy infrastructure is prohibited from 134,000 to 306,000. “This is a turning point for the recreation world,” says Ashley Korenblat of Moab’s Western Spirit Cycling. “Suddenly we have standing.”

BLM policies have long favored oil and gas. Last year, The Wilderness Society found that 90 percent of the agency’s Western lands were open to leasing. The Moab plan is part of a five-year-old Obama administration effort to give more weight to other interests. Proponents say its zoning-style approach is a model for how to resolve conflicts between drilling and other values — including wildlife, hiking, biking and even four-wheeling — by heading them off before they start.

But only seven of the dozen master leasing plans underway in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah have been finalized, most this summer. None have yet been implemented, raising questions about how the approach will fare if the next administration swings right. “It really matters what BLM leadership is going to do, come 2016,” says Matt Lee-Ashley of the Center for American Progress, who was deputy chief of staff to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “Hopefully, by then it will be a tool that the agency is more experienced and comfortable with, and it will survive regardless of whether political winds change in D.C.”

 

Neal Clark of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance overlooks a gas pad on BLM land near the Island in the Sky entrance to Canyonlands National Park.
Sarah Gilman

Master leasing plans sprang from the notorious 2008 Utah oil and gas lease auction where environmental activist Tim DeChristopher bid on parcels near Canyonlands, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument to keep them undeveloped, and ended up in prison. At Salazar’s order, a team reviewed 77 contested leases and found that some should never have been auctioned, while others merited stronger restrictions.

Those problems were systemic, says then-BLM Director Bob Abbey. “We inherited an oil and gas program where over 50 percent of leasing decisions were being protested and litigated. There was no certainty for anyone.”

Field offices leaned heavily on their resource management plans — blueprints for managing huge landscapes that tend not to account for on-the-ground nuances, such as whether potential leases are within sight of trails. Unless plans explicitly withdrew land from leasing, companies could nominate it and the BLM would go ahead, worrying about mitigation when companies applied to drill. “That’s not a good approach,” Abbey says. “There are areas where natural, cultural and even visual resources are so valued that you need to do a better job up-front analyzing whether a certain area should be leased at all. Because once you lease it, you’re committing it to development.”

So in May 2010, the agency instituted reforms that, among other things, required field offices to undertake master leasing plans for areas that met certain criteria: They needed to be substantially unleased, have mostly federal mineral rights, possess hydrocarbon reserves, and have the potential for significant conflicts with clean air, recreation, wilderness or other values.

But the reforms proceeded at a sluggish pace. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened just a few weeks earlier, diverting officials’ attention to strengthening offshore policies. The BLM’s massive sage grouse planning effort began that year,  too, and many field offices were tangled in resource management plan revisions.

Financial constraints didn’t help: Utah BLM put four other plans on hold so it could finish the high-profile Moab plan. Utah’s congressional delegation and its state government opposed the effort. And there was reluctance within the BLM itself: “It was a brand-new concept in an area that the agency has historically not exercised a lot of discretion,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “The attitude was that we have to keep everything open in case the oil and gas industry wants it.”

Even so, the concept gradually caught on. In some parts of Colorado, including North Park, South Park and a small chunk of the state’s southwestern corner, the BLM had initially resisted undertaking- a master leasing plan. Now, however, those areas have completed plans or have begun processes for them. And even though conservationists feel some plans don’t go far enough, progress has been made toward resolving conflicts. Thanks to the protections laid out in one Colorado master leasing plan adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument, for example, some regional and national environmental groups aren’t fighting BLM’s allowance for 15,000 new wells in that region, Culver says.

Meanwhile, “lease sales have generally been more thoughtful,” says Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance legal director. Indeed, the number of leases offered nationwide has dropped by half since 2008. The recession has something to do with that, but the proportion of leases protested has fallen steadily too, from 41 percent in 2010, to less than 20 percent in 2014.

Landscape-level planning takes time, says former Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes: “You have to walk before you run. And (master leasing plans) are moving at a nice walking pace here.” Abbey, however, admits disappointment: “None of us anticipated the amount of time it would take the agency to complete.”

 

Moab’s plan has moved particularly slowly because it’s among the most complex, tackling mining for potash, a potassium fertilizer, as well as oil and gas. The agency also included a substantial extra step in the public process, collecting feedback on a suite of possible approaches before creating the draft plan. An independent stakeholder group provided additional support, outreach and feedback.

The resulting draft plan’s preferred path forward increases protections over the entire area, closes unleased BLM lands near Arches and Canyonlands to mineral development, and creates buffers around popular climbing and canyoneering -areas, trails, cultural sites, popular filming locations, viewpoints and access roads. Still, conservationists worry that it gives managers too much leeway to waive some protections, and that it doesn’t adequately safeguard a popular stretch of the Green River that winds through Labyrinth Canyon.

Companies and trade associations, meanwhile, dismiss the argument that leasing plans provide more certainty. The regulations are redundant, argues Fidelity’s Tim Rasmussen: “We think (the Moab plan) penalizes energy development without considering the socio-economic benefits that it brings to the area.” It’s also unclear how far the BLM will go in imposing the new protections on existing leases when companies apply for drilling permits.

But the benefits of the intensive public process are clear. The Moab City Council has endorsed the plan. And after three incumbents were swept from the Grand County Council last fall, that body withdrew its request for the BLM to leave things as they are, though it hasn’t commented on the new plan. Even Utah may be softening. In 2013, it hired Brad Peterson to be its first director of outdoor recreation, giving that industry a much stronger voice in state government. “So far, my general take is that support for the (Moab plan) is tentatively growing,” Peterson says. As the state’s powerhouse recreation economy expands, “people are starting to understand what the benefits would be in the future.”

One of those benefits is increased local input on leasing decisions, which could help them stick regardless of who’s in the White House. Even the growing movement among conservative states to take over federal lands is about wanting local control over management, Peterson points out. “The master leasing plan in South Park was proposed by the county with the backing of three Republican commissioners,” adds Culver. “Once you let people see that they have a voice, it’s very hard to take it away.”

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