More than a half-million Utah acres will be auctioned off by feds for oil and gas development

The Trump administration’s vision of American “energy dominance” is taking shape across the West, and, for Utah, that means a return to oil and gas leasing in places valued for wildlife habitat, recreation and artifacts — along with new limits on public participation in decision making in the name of “streamlining” the approval process.

Later this year, the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah office intends to embark on two of its largest lease offerings in years, putting out more than a half-million acres for auction despite an existing inventory of more than 1 million acres of undeveloped leases.

Some of the nearly 334 parcels to be sold online in September and December feature areas cherished by hunters and anglers, such as the Book Cliffs and the headwaters of the Price River, as well as priority sage grouse habitat, archaeologically rich lands in San Juan County, areas with troubled air quality, and wild country that has seen little or no drilling in the past.

Either sale, if approved as proposed, would be larger than the one eco-activist Tim DeChristopher disrupted with phony bids a decade ago to protest leasing lands around national parks in the waning days of President George W. Bush’s tenure. That offering, which was largely pulled back by the Obama administration, exposed flaws in the BLM’s leasing process, leading to reforms that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has now pushed aside as unnecessary hindrances to energy development on public land.

“When you look at energy domination, all other uses lose. The natural resources, hunters and anglers, the artifacts, hikers, campers, grazers,” lamented Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Energy dominance is not the way our public lands are set up. They were set up for multiple use.”

Sparking criticism from wildlife and wilderness groups was BLM’s recent announcement that it planned to sell 225 leases on 330,000 acres spread around Utah at its quarterly auction in December. The public has until July 31 to submit comments on what may be the state’s biggest sale ever. That’s on top of the 204,000 acres to be sold online at the September auction. Industry representatives praised these large sales as an overdue correction to previous policies that discouraged energy development.

How it’s ‘supposed to work’

“They are all in areas designated for multiple use through land-use planning,” said Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance. “The administration is simply moving forward with leasing as opposed to holding it up as it has been for several years.”

She said there is much “pent-up demand” for leases that, if issued, do not preclude other uses of the land and will require focused environmental reviews once drilling is proposed.

"It’s not surprising we are seeing some larger sales,” Sgamma said. "People were getting used to anemic lease sales where there were just a couple thousand acres or canceled altogether. That it’s not how the system is supposed to work.”

Many parcels to be auctioned were drawn from a huge backlog of lands that industry had “nominated” for leasing but were tabled by the Obama administration’s Interior Department while it was developing “master leasing” plans for several Utah landscapes, where hydrocarbon deposits overlapped with public lands that held strong wildlife, archaeological and recreational values.

The idea was to postpone leasing decisions until a plan could be completed that would spell out where drilling could occur inside these planning areas, but the issue became moot after the transition to President Donald Trump’s Republican administration.

Master leasing was one of the many Obama-era reforms scrapped under Zinke.

A memorandum Interior issued in January guides oil and gas leasing now, requiring expeditious decisions once parcels are nominated by industry.

“The BLM will not routinely defer leasing,” agency spokeswoman Kimberly Finch said. “The new policy says we won’t defer leasing if we are revising or amending resource management plans. We will exercise our discretion within existing plans.”

The Government Accountability Office reports, however, that Utah’s inventory of federal oil and gas leases that remain undeveloped totals more than a third of the 3 million acres under lease.

According to the June report, 731 leases remained under suspension as of 2016, suggesting industry is sitting on more oil and gas leases that it knows what to do with.

Sgamma contends those suspensions reflect the inordinate amount of time it takes to get drilling permits.

“Some of that acreage is hung up in the long, drawn-out federal process. Many times suspensions are granted because BLM knows it is spending too much time on the environmental analysis,” she said. “When lands are leased, they are not locked away from other uses. All they do is confer a right to potentially develop if you can get through all the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis and permitting, which can take years and years.”

State is on board

On Thursday, the BLM announced its final decision to offer 94 parcels at the September sale, covering 204,000 acres, mostly in Emery, Wayne and Utah counties. The protest period closes Aug. 6.

Utah officials fully endorsed the leases offered at the September sale.

“The state appreciates the frequency and efficiency with which the BLM is currently holding its quarterly oil and gas lease sales and hopes that these lease sales may continue,” public lands policy director Kathleen Clarke wrote in the state’s official comments. “Utah residents will continue to benefit as the BLM fulfills its mission to promote the sustained yield and multiple use of the state’s public lands.”

The only reservations she expressed concerned two parcels adjacent to an aquifer that Yuba State Park taps for its culinary water and North Beach. Clarke asked that wells drilled here be cased to avoid groundwater contamination and prohibit surface disturbance near the popular beach.

Most of the September sale covers a 12-by-24-mile block in southern Emery County, east of State Route 24 and west of the Greer River, an area covered by the now-abandoned San Rafael Desert master leasing plan.

“This process has shown a disturbing lack of concern for the invaluable resources and experiences that will be lost and hasn’t taken into account input from the American public,” said Nada Culver, who directs The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.

Drawing the most ire from environmental groups is the attenuated opportunity for the public to weigh in on the lease proposals, required under NEPA. The public previously had 30 days to comment during the “scoping” process and again after the release of draft environmental assessments, or EAs.

Under Zinke, the “scoping” comment period has been cut to 15 days and eliminated for the EAs. Instead the public has 10 days to file “protests” after the release of the final EAs. That’s not enough time for anyone outside the most established environmental groups, staffed with lawyers familiar with the leasing process, to prepare meaningful protests, complained Landon Newell of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“We are going back to what BLM said nine years ago was a broken system,” Newell said.

The September sale includes several parcels around Emma Park, an area near Soldier Summit along U.S. Highway 6 midway between Spanish Fork and Price. Anglers frequent the headwaters of the Price River and its tributaries there, plying the waters for trout.

With most of these parcels, the surface acreage is privately owned in a “split estate” arrangement that prioritizes mineral development over surface uses.

“They are squeezing the public out by narrowing the scope of NEPA and at the same time they are doing unprecedented leases in Book Cliffs and surrounding areas in Utah,” said Tawney of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “The majority of Americans are taking it in the shorts. It’s the elite few who are making the money all in the name of energy domination.”

The December sale will offer several more Emma Park parcels to the south, in Carbon County, in addition to numerous parcels in the Book Cliffs, famous for its herds of elk and mule deer. This area is the southern fringes of the East Tavaputs Plateau, which has seen extensive energy development.

Some hunters fear the latest leasing proposal will expand development off the plateau, displacing big game.

“I am very nervous about the quality of the experience and the quality of the habitat,” said Michael Lipps, a BHA member from Midvale. “If you put too many roads in, you might push animals out of areas that really need to use them, specifically on the upper ridges. If they move down too low, they are going to find poorer forage.”

Also on the block in December are new parcels around Montezuma Canyon, where the ancestors of today’s Hopi Indians left a largely intact record of an agricultural civilization that persisted for centuries in this unforgiving landscape.

In March, the BLM sold leases to 43 parcels in this landscape west of Blanding over the objections of historic preservation groups.