Wyoming will see a federal oil and gas lease sale in early 2022 due to a federal court ruling that ended the Biden administration’s 2021 moratorium. But the size of the lease sale will be much smaller than industry, and state leaders, hoped for.
The Bureau of Land Management will defer 264 lease parcels initially considered for the sale, it said, and will instead offer a total 195 parcels.
The parcels struck from the sale represent about 382,882 acres of Priority Habitat Management Areas for greater sage grouse, according to BLM Wyoming. The decision to defer is rooted in Obama-era federal sage grouse management plans that instruct BLM to prioritize mineral lease acres outside “core” sage grouse habitat, BLM said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited those Obama-era sage grouse plans, finalized in 2015, to support its decision not to recommend listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation groups say the BLM’s decision to defer Wyoming leases appears to be an attempt to return to the collaborative stakeholder process set forth in the 2015 sage grouse management plans. Legal wrangling over compliance with those plans, combined with recent reports by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies indicating the health of sagebrush habitats is still in decline, add pressure on the BLM to act, Audubon Rockies Policy and Outreach Director Daly Edmunds said.
“That habitat is really challenged by a lot of different pressures,” Edmunds said, including oil and gas development and invasive plant species like cheatgrass. “So we have a lot of issues.”
Compounding federal actions
In addition to further assessing potential impacts and existing pressures on greater sage grouse habitat, the Interior Department is moving forward with a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas leasing program to possibly update rules regarding minimum bids, royalty rates and potential conflicts with other sensitive wildlife habitats, wilderness study areas and cultural resources.
The BLM, which operates under the Interior, announced Oct. 29 it will also begin analyzing greenhouse gas emissions likely to result from the sale of federal minerals. BLM recently published its 2020 annual report on greenhouse gas emissions and climate trends, which notes Wyoming ranks highest in the nation for CO2 emissions resulting from leasing federal coal, oil and natural gas, accounting for nearly 56% the nationwide total. Federal coal makes up the vast majority of Wyoming’s CO2 emissions profile.
The recent federal actions could dramatically change course for conservation and oil and gas development in Wyoming, where about half the acreage, and nearly 70% of the mineral estate, is under federal management.
“This leasing review is a crafty way of establishing a moratorium on federal lease sales, making continued progress ever more tenuous, more difficult, and more likely that good paying, family supporting jobs will migrate somewhere else,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in April. “That is bad for this country, for the climate, and especially for Wyoming.”
Reducing the size of the first-quarter 2022 lease sale is an attempt by the Biden administration to “skirt” the court injunction on the leasing moratorium, Petroleum Association of Wyoming Communications Director Ryan McConnaughey said.
“While they’re going to comply by holding those lease sales, they’re going to do everything they can to stop leasing on federal lands,” McConnaughey said. “Given the reliance of Wyoming on drilling on federal lands, it will be devastating for the industry here if these [federal efforts] continue to move forward.”
About 5 million acres of federal oil and gas are currently under lease and available for development in Wyoming, according to a 2021 Conservation Economics Institute report. The Natural Resources Defense Council funded the CEI study, which was endorsed by various conservation groups, including Wyoming’s Powder River Basin Resource Council. The Biden administration’s pause on new leasing did not impede the availability of those minerals, the groups contend, and the industry has relied on them to take advantage of rebounding market conditions.
“There are a large number of existing leases in Wyoming that have not been developed,” Edmunds said. “We encourage developers to focus on these and to hold off on pursuing new leases in sage grouse habitat until the review of federal oil and gas leasing process and the 2015 sage-grouse resource management plans are reviewed.
“We know sage grouse are not doing well,” Edmunds continued. “Let’s listen to the science, and let’s not lease in sage grouse habitat at this point. Let’s hold off on that until we let these other processes finish up.”
Despite the volume of federal oil and gas already under lease in Wyoming, industry still has to contend with federal analysis and approval processes that take years. It’s critical to continue regular oil and gas lease sales in order to plan for those long regulatory processes, McConnaughey said.
“I think you can point to the Converse County [Oil and Gas Environmental Impact Statement] that took almost a decade to get through,” McConnaughey said. “It’s hard to argue that that process was rushed when it takes that long.”
Lease sale still includes ‘general’ sage grouse habitat
Conservation groups have rallied to support the Biden administration’s pause on federal oil and gas leasing to allow for a thorough review. Now they’re looking for clues within upcoming lease sales for how far the administration might go in its commitment to emphasize human health and environmental protections.
Based on the upcoming first-quarter 2022 lease sale in Wyoming, as proposed, there is cause for concern, Wyoming Outdoor Council conservation advocate John Rader said.
Although the BLM deferred many leases proposed in core sage grouse habitat, several parcels still included in the sale are within what’s categorized as “general” sage grouse habitats.
“That’s a problem because BLM still has a duty under the grouse plans to prioritize leasing outside of general habitat, not just for core habitat,” Rader said. “They don’t really have an explanation for how they’re doing that with all these leases.”
Several of the lease parcels are within the BLM Rock Springs Field Office jurisdiction, where a Resource Management Plan revision has been underway for years. The BLM should withhold further lease sales in the region until the RMP is completed, Rader said.
“We’re still operating under a 1997 plan that doesn’t include the latest science on wildlife and impacts of industrial development,” Rader said. “That’s concerning because that particular area contains the Red Desert and the Golden Triangle. These are landscapes that are really important because they’re some of the best wildlife habitats in Wyoming and they are the best sage grouse habitats on the planet.”
Deadline for public comment regarding Wyoming BLM’s first quarter oil and gas lease sale is Dec. 1. Comments can be submitted here.