A male sage grouse struts on a Wyoming lek in April 2020. (Bill Sincavage)

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.

“That habitat is really challenged by a lot of different pressures.”

Daly Edmunds, Policy and Outreach Director, Audubon Rockies

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.”

This map depicts the 459 oil and gas lease parcels originally considered for the Q1 2022 federal oil and gas lease sale. BLM has since deferred 264 lease parcels from the sale. (Wyoming BLM)

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.

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s former greater sage grouse leader, seen here in 2015, checks out the habitat near the Divide Lek where up to 300 male grouse strut in mating rituals in the spring. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

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.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Wyoming gets full unfiltered credit for causing the soon to happen extinction of grouse in this area. Other animals and birds will follow soon.

  2. THE WYOMING DILEMMA: The never ending clash between natural resources development and wildlife in Wyoming – and both are ultra important to us – reminds me of a Catch 22. However, there have been some very concerning lessons learned in the past about not being cautious enough like the coal bed methane rush that ended in disaster, a solar project right in the middle of an antelope migration route, the Jonah field right in the middle of the best sage grouse habitat in the US bar none, the whole entire flow of the Platte River impounded for irrigation ( now resolved by the 4 state Platte River compact ), and many more. Industrial development makes grazing/ranching look like the best use of the land. One thing that’s becoming increasing clear is the difficulty of moving industrial development forward on federal land and federal mineral rights – the regulatory approval process is tedious and likely to be challenged in court numerous times. Its the new normal in Wyoming. Perpetual conflict, no relief in sight and destined to become more contentious in Wyoming. Its the reality of federal land ownership.

  3. Science deniers blame SUV’s and cow farts for climate cycles that have happened for literally millennia. Remember stories of the Dust Bowl? Read history. This is all a hoax. A plan to crash the economy to benefit the 1%, who will buy up the remains as they did after the last Great Depression. Your car is evil. Their yachts and private jets are good. You shouldn’t burn firewood. They fly around the world to attend a climate conference. They buy beachfront homes and tell you the sea is rising. All nonsense. Artificial scarcity. If they ever let the supply chain loose the inflation will be astronomical, so they won’t. Get used to getting by with less.
    Elections have consequences.

    1. Seriously? Yes, elections do have consequences. That is why the country and the world have been greatly diminished by 4 years of Unser Fuhrer’s “reign”.

      1. Mandates and executive orders a dictator make. Nazi Joe is the worst of the worst.
        Myths of Russian Collusion and the Fauxsurrection are eroding before our eyes.
        Democrats and their twisted religion are falling apart. This lawless tribe will destroy the economy to bring in their Utopia and hurt the children. 2022 will be a reckoning.

  4. I’ve heard that the regulations for proposed wind farms are not as tuff as for oil and gas? Is there any information regarding their requirements?

  5. Additional background. A significant number of federal oil and gas leases sold and issued in WY have been challenged in federal courts and many are “suspended” prohibiting development until the courts rule. Lease sales beginning in 2014 through 2020 have been challenged. Two district court decisions, one in MT and one in ID that ruled against BLM for selling leases in GSG habitat are fully briefed/argued before the Ninth Circuit and await a decision. Other WY leases are challenged in the DC district court for an inadequate climate change analysis. The BLM WY has lost twice and the Federal government is negotiating a settlement with the environmental plaintiffs that may be concluded in early December.