A group of pronghorn on Wyoming’s public lands. Wildlife compete with other natural resource values, like oil and gas development, for use of the landscape. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)

While everyone is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with closed schools, businesses and lost jobs, there is one group still hard at work — our Bureau of Land Management’s minerals leasing team.

With oil and gas prices at an all-time low, the BLM continues putting public lands out for bid to an industry that is in an economic tailspin. Just this March, Wyoming’s BLM office sold 71,689 acres (112 square miles) of oil and gas leases. In the three previous years, the BLM sold leases for development of 2,233,002 acres (3,490 square miles) to energy companies, an area slightly larger than Yellowstone National Park.

To highlight the folly of this leasing frenzy, at the end of 2018 over half of the 22 million-plus acres under lease in 10 western states had not been developed. In Wyoming, 52% of the BLM’s 9.2 million leased acres sat idle; no development and no income to counties, the state or the federal government.

On April 20, the New York Times reported that the market price for a barrel of oil dipped into negative territory, “suggesting people who had oil to sell were willing to pay people to take it off their hands.”

Clearly, it’s time to hit the pause button on leasing. Selling low and when the market is in turmoil is simply irresponsible.

When sold, leases are valid for 10 years. But when not developed during that period, they are typically granted indefinite extensions at no extra charge.

Unfortunately, idle leases fall into a kind of management limbo and tend to stymie BLM efforts to implement other management prescriptions, such as habitat improvement programs.

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The administration’s energy dominance agenda, with its emphasis on getting leases and drilling permits out the door ASAP, fuels this leasing frenzy — which now far outpaces BLM’s ability to sufficiently analyze and mitigate potential environmental impacts of full lease development.  

This problem was described in a 2005 Government Accounting Office report titled “Oil And Gas Development: Increased Permitting Activity Has Lessened BLM’s Ability to Meet Its Environmental Protection Responsibilities.” The report concluded that “policy changes to improve and streamline the processing of drilling permits have indirectly had a negative impact on environmental mitigation activities.”

In other words, the increased workload, without concurrent staff and budget increases, has meant that environmental concerns surrounding oil and gas leases were and continue to be inadequately addressed.

A leasing pause will also provide the BLM time to update district Resource Management Plans — the foundations for long-term management decisions. In part, RMPs make landscape-scale determinations as to which activities are suitable for various areas and which are not. Done properly, RMP revisions incorporate the best and most current data to help guide these decisions.

For example, we know that sage grouse populations decreased significantly in the past decade. Consequently, areas classified in current RMPs as being available for leasing might, with new information, be identified as important grouse habitat and thus be reclassified as unavailable for leasing.

Similarly, critical pronghorn and mule deer migration corridors and habitats have been precisely mapped in recent years and should also be protected with revised RMPs.

RMPs also need to be brought into compliance with recent Clean Air Act revisions, including new federal ozone standards.

Unfortunately, today’s leases are routinely put out for bid with inadequate cumulative impacts analyses. We need to ask and answer, how will oil and gas development impact adjacent lands? New development adjacent to critical wildlife habitat or lands with high recreational value will be more impactful then if adjacent to existing developments. How will this be mitigated, if it can?

These comprehensive and long-term, landscape-scale analyses are too often lacking or only superficially addressed in the current leasing process. Lease areas do not exist as islands within larger landscapes and they should not be analyzed as such.

In order to comply with federal standards, a full NEPA analysis must be completed whenever an action ”significantly affects the quality of the human environment.” Reviewing an area for potential oil and gas leasing/development clearly falls into this category. Many lease decisions fall short of this requirement and end up being challenged in court and forced into wasteful do-overs.

RMP revisions with full NEPA compliance provides the interested public with adequate time and opportunity to make comments regarding the future of our public lands — something sorely lacking in the current politically rushed atmosphere. 

As owners of these public lands, we should all tell the BLM to hit the pause button on leasing and set a schedule to revise outdated RMPs. And when this process goes public, I hope that everyone will be free of this terrible COVID-19 and be able to engage fully in this important public process.

Franz Camenzind

Franz Camenzind holds a PhD in Zoology from the University of Wyoming (1978). As an environment consultant, he conducted numerous wildlife assessments throughout the region, often focusing on threatened...

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  1. Never let a good panic go to waste. Covid has nothing to do with public land planning and development. Typical myopic view of public land use.