An energy industry group is accusing the Bureau of Land Management of bending to “one special interest” in its 11th-hour decision last fall to pull parcels in and around Utah’s scenic San Rafael Swell from an oil and gas lease sale.
The Western Energy Alliance filed an appeal of the decision with the Interior Board of Land Appeals on Monday.
Five days before the Nov. 19 auction, BLM’s Utah Director Juan Palma pulled 57 parcels, citing the need to conduct further study on the area’s cultural resources and sensitive species before committing the lands to energy development.
Conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and historic preservationists applauded the move, which forestalls potential drilling in one of Utah’s most cherished landscapes. The state’s congressional delegation blasted it as a damper on interest in Utah’s energy resources.
The alliance’s appeal argues Palma ignored his office’s environmental review and deviated from accepted norms and leasing procedures, amounting to “the arbitrary and improper assertion of agency discretion.”
The group alleges BLM’s last-minute about-face stemmed from a closed-door plea the Utah Rock Art Research Association made on Oct. 23, long after the environmental review for the lease sale was completed.
“BLM’s own policies state that it won’t accept comments received after established deadlines, yet ignored the public and its own carefully crafted measures by bending to the demands of one group,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the alliance’s vice president of government and public affairs.
“The situation raises serious questions about political favoritism and sows further uncertainty in the federal leasing process,” Sgamma said.
It is appropriate to table a decision when new information surfaces, BLM’s defenders shot back. Palma and his top staff reconsidered the leases after learning of 100 rock art sites that don’t appear on official inventories, according to Diane Orr, who chairs the rock art association’s preservation committee.
“It was numerous panels from four or five distinct cultures,” Orr said. “They never have done the research and inventory. How can they plan roads? The topography has all these canyons. If you took a truck through you would destroy everything.”
Orr acknowledged that her group failed to comment during BLM’s environmental review.
“We are a volunteer staff. We are stretched thin. I wish we had paid staff that could alert us to these things,” she said. “Our goal is to educate Utahns and preserve this resource. This isn’t like seeking special privilege. We don’t have any financial stake in this.”
The BLM declined to discuss the appeal for legal reasons.
In an email, Palma said: “The combination of thorough environmental analysis and public participation helps us ensure that energy resources on Utah’s public lands are responsibly developed in the right places and in the right ways.”
For its May 20 auction, BLM is fielding public comment until Jan. 27 on oil and gas leases covering 132,052 acres on 111 parcels across southern Utah.
Joining the San Rafael appeal filed Monday is Castle Valley Holdings, a Denver-based company that nominated 10 of the parcels pulled from the auction. This firm and other alliance members say they spent $500,000 preparing for the auction.
“In an industry as risk-laden and capital intensive as oil and gas development, investment certainty requires the consistent interpretation and application of federal statutes, regulations and BLM policy governing lease acquisition,” the appeal states.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which had protested the San Rafael auction, vowed to intervene on BLM’s side and defend leasing reform, which it characterizes as “think first, and lease later.”
“Once BLM makes a tentative decision, it has to offer those leases no matter what? Here there are cultural sites that could be destroyed, but it’s bound to offer those? That’s not right,” said SUWA legal director Steve Bloch. “It is without question that BLM retains ultimate authority to offer any particular tract at a lease sale.”
The Price Resource Management Plan, a Bush-era document guiding use of federal lands in Emery and Carbon counties, indicates all parcels proposed for the Nov. 19 auction are available for leasing, according to Sgamma.
BLM had taken SUWA and the Hopi Tribe’s input into consideration by attaching special stipulations to these parcels to protect rock art and other cultural resources, she said.
But Orr argued BLM did the right thing by putting the leases on hold. Interested energy companies are better off knowing about the presence of cultural treasures on a lease parcel before bidding, she said
“Juan Palma was courageous to act on information rather than politics,” she said.