Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s signature master plans for use of public lands in Utah and across the country are to be officially sent to the regulatory scrapheap, according to a new report from her successor, who is instead targeting “actions that potentially burden domestic energy.”
To achieve the Trump administration’s vision for “American energy independence,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s report is aimed at lifting barriers to development on public lands.
“Developing our energy resources to grow our economy and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive,” Zinke announced last week. “Our public lands are meant to be managed for the benefit of the people.
“That means a multiple-use approach where appropriate and making sure that multiple-use includes energy development under reasonable regulations,” the secretary said. “Following President Trump’s leadership, Interior is fostering domestic energy production by streamlining permitting and revising and repealing Obama-era job killing regulations – all while doing so in an environmentally responsible way.”
Zinke’s 44-page document puts “efficient and effective development” of energy resources ahead of other considerations and makes scant mention of climate change, which scientists attribute to emissions from burning of fossil fuels.
On the list of programs to be axed or rewritten is the Bureau of Land Management’s master leasing process; its methane flaring and venting rule; hydraulic fracturing regulations; and its coal leasing program.
Critics fear the regulatory rollback will come at a cost to the climate and treasured resources, such as ancient artifacts, night skies, recreation, wildlife habitat and scenic vistas.
Particularly disturbing to Utah’s outdoor recreation industry is the termination of master leasing plans, which Jewell initiated in regions where energy resources overlap with places valued for the outdoor recreation and scenery, such as Moab, San Rafael Swell and Cisco Desert under the Book Cliffs.
“Taking away this planning tool does not take away that reality that conflicting uses need to be zoned,” said public lands activist Ashley Korenblat, who operates a bike-guiding service in Moab. “Without [master leasing plans] marginal parcels will be leased and communities that have economic development strategies beyond oil and gas will be at risk at every auction.”
Under Jewell’s watch, Moab was the only area in Utah where a master leasing plan was finalized, while at least five proposed plans never reached the finish line, including ones near Dinosaur and Bears Ears national monuments. The process was put in place in the turbulent wake of a leasing rush at the end of President George W. Bush’s tenure, when the BLM offered hundreds of thousands of acres, many of them near or contained by lands set aside set aside as parks, monuments and recreation areas.
“Apparently eight years is exactly how long it takes to forget just how dysfunctional the leasing system was under the Bush administration,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “The BLM leasing reforms didn’t come out of thin air. They were a reaction to a lease-it-all-sight-unseen policy that cut the public and even other land managers out of the process, resulting in illegal leases being issued and a firestorm of well-deserved criticism.”
Grijalva said Zinke’s latest report “just confirms that everything in the Department must conform to the single-minded goal of letting the polluting oil and gas industry do whatever it wants, whenever it wants.”
Leasing reform backers say master leasing plans could actually speed energy development by reducing post-leasing conflicts over drilling proposals. But, echoing complaints from Utah state leaders and the energy industry, Zinke’s report concluded the plans get in the way without providing much environmental benefit
Interior manages resources that produce nearly 20 percent of the nation’s energy, yielding at least $10 billion in royalties—one of the federal government’s largest sources of non-tax revenue.
“Beyond enhancing America’s energy security, low cost energy benefits the American consumer and enhances American manufacturing competitiveness, making American businesses more competitive globally,” the report states.
Zinke’s report also proposes overhauling the flaring rule, issued last year by the Obama administration to reduce the amount of valuable methane—a potent greenhouse gas—lost in oil and gas operations.
From the beginning, the oil and gas industry has argued against both master leasing and the methane rule for unnecessarily complicating existing regulations. The trade group Western Energy Alliance, which is suing over the methane rule, praised Interior for promising to rewrite it and filed papers seeking an injunction to forestall compliance under the current rule.
“BLM is trying to do the right thing by suspending the rule through a full rule-making process,” Sgamma said, “but we cannot be sure that it will get that suspension done in time.”
Zinke also intends to halve the amount of time the BLM takes to put oil and gas leases on the auction block. Under the previous administration, it took up to 16 months after industry “nominated” public land for development for a lease to be sold. Zinke wants to narrow that window to eight to 10 months.
Such reforms would reduce the backlogged nominations and provide industry “greater certainty” over leases it already holds, the report said.
“As a result, industry will be able to plan for and execute exploration and production strategies earlier, and respond more effectively to changing market conditions,” the report states.
But sportsmen’s groups, such as Trout Unlimited and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, fear a rush to lease would lead to drilling in inappropriate places that could put fish and wildlife at risk.
“Our coalition has always supported responsible development of our public-land resources, and though we could support some streamlining of processes, we cannot support revoking approaches that help avoid damage to critical habitats, improve mitigation, and hold developers accountable for their actions,” said Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.