BLM opens land to drilling; details murky

Published November 5, 2008 12:29 am
Some of the 360,000 acres thought to be near the state's national parks and monuments
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The Bush administration announced Tuesday that it will open up nearly 360,000 more acres of Utah public lands to oil and gas drilling.

But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's supposed list failed to detail those 241 proposed oil and gas parcels - some of which are thought to be near national parks and monuments. Instead, the BLM included only a muddled statement issued at the end of the workday by the agency's Salt Lake City office, whose officials skedaddled without offering any explanations.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday questioning why the BLM continues to offer so many leases when so few ever are developed.

The GAO looked at six Western states - Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming - and found that of nearly 48,000 leases issued from 1987 through 1996, only 2,900 ever were drilled and only about 1,800 produced any oil or gas.

In Utah, the BLM issued 5,127 leases during the same time period, but developers drilled only 323 (6.3 percent) and produced oil or gas on 225 leases (4.4 percent). The leases all were for 10 years with the possibility of a two-year extension.

Mark Gaffigan, director of GAO's natural-resources and environmental team, said the agency's recommendation to the Interior Department to sell leases for fewer than 10 years would encourage actual development.

"All we're saying is, maybe one size doesn't fit all," Gaffigan said. "Why don't we develop the ones we've already leased?"

Industry representatives took issue with the GAO findings.

"In its investigation, the GAO failed to consider the sometimes-insurmountable impediments that companies face when attempting to develop energy on our public lands," said Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States. "Companies are doing all they can to develop federal energy resources, but a lease is not a green light to drill - it's the first step in a long, expensive process that is fraught with bureaucratic red tape and protests and lawsuits by environmental groups determined to slow domestic energy development."

While the BLM didn't disclose Tuesday where the new lease parcels are, preliminary lists circulating last week showed they would include large areas considered worthy of wilderness status, including artifact-rich Nine Mile Canyon, Desolation Canyon and areas around Dinosaur National Monument in eastern Utah. Tracts abutting Arches National Park and near Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah also are expected to be on the block.

"There's absolutely no need to sell leases in special places like Desolation Canyon, like areas next to Arches or Canyonlands national parks," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

These public lands had been largely off-limits to new oil and gas leasing because of a series of federal court and administrative decisions overturning earlier illegal BLM leasing decisions.

The BLM itself has declared these pristine lands to be wilderness-caliber landscapes.

In its Tuesday announcement, the agency avoided that issue, saying that recently completed long-term resource-management plans "provide administrative protection for these natural areas - a few of which are available for leasing under the most stringent restrictions."


Leases issued by BLM, used Bureau of Land Management oil and gas leases issued in Utah from 1987 through 1996 and developed by 2007:

* Leases issued: 5,127

* Leases drilled: 323

* Leases that produced: 225

* Percentage of leases drilled: 6.3

* Percentage of leases that produced: 4.4

Source: Government

Accountability Office

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