Feds hold biggest Utah oil and gas auction in years, setting off heightened concerns from environmentalists

Courtesy | National Trust for Historic Preservation The view from Alkali Ridge, a national historic landmark rich in Puebloan archaeology in San Juan County. The BLM is leasing land here east of Blanding for oil and gas development, despite objections from American Indian tribes and historic preservationists.

The Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda reasserted itself in Utah on Tuesday with yet another near-record oil and gas lease auction that offered 154,000 acres to the highest bidder, drawing jeers from environmentalists who contend the Bureau of Land Management is sacrificing the state’s natural heritage.

“This enormous sell-off of public lands has opened the door to destructive oil and gas development on and near some of Utah’s most remarkable public lands, including Canyonlands National Park, Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Dinosaur national monuments, culturally rich areas such as Alkali Ridge, the Molen Reef region of the San Rafael Swell, Nine Mile Canyon,” Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told activists gathered inside the Utah Capitol. Other lands have strong wilderness characteristics and contain important wildlife habitat.

Companies buying leases have 10 years to initiate a drilling plan, which must undergo further environmental scrutiny before development can proceed, and most leases are subject to stipulations designed to protect the land’s nonenergy resources.

“We will, of course, continue to carefully consider all nominated parcels to determine if they are appropriate for leasing,” said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Ryan Sutherland, “and continue to conduct an environmental review before offering any leases for potential oil and gas development.”

He noted that oil and gas development on Utah’s public lands generated $2.6 billion in economic activity last year.

The sale conducted online Tuesday was the BLM’s largest in Utah in more than a decade. It would have been twice as big were it not for a recent court ruling questioning the truncated analysis proposed lease sales receive under new guidelines mandated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. To accommodate further review, the BLM holstered most of the parcels until its March sale.

That left 105 parcels on the block Tuesday, mostly in Uintah and San Juan counties, along with a group clustered near the Green River’s intersection with Interstate 70.

Tuesday’s bidding garnered acceptable offers on all but nine of the parcels, netting $2.8 million in bids, plus another $224,000 in annual rent and fees. The high bids were relatively low, topping out at $66 an acre for a White River parcel on land proposed for wilderness.

Tuesday’s offering reflects Zinke’s policy mandates to lower barriers to drilling on public lands, requiring the BLM to drop “master leasing,” streamline environmental analysis, reduce opportunities for public comment, and speed the permitting and leasing processes — all to the frustration of the environmental community. Many fear Zinke’s policies exacerbate the deepening climate crisis by unleashing more fossil fuels on the atmosphere.

“Oil and gas leasing threatens to shatter our dreams. It threatens to shatter our visions for a better world,” said Eliza Van Dyk, a Westminster College sophomore studying environmental justice, “and yet the BLM is leasing our futures without even letting us have a say. The absence of an accessible public comment period has been a despicable violation of our rights as young people to secure a just and livable future.”

Under the new leasing guidelines, however, the BLM now tends to offer any public land industry nominates for leasing as long as that property is eligible for development under the agency’s existing resource-management plans. Most of Utah’s current plans were released during the waning months of President George W. Bush’s administration and are seen as overly friendly to industry.

Other groups attacking the Utah lease sales include the Center for Biological Diversity, Wasatch Rising Tide, Breathe Utah, Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Since taking office, the Trump administration has offered oil and gas leases near more than 20 national park landscapes, under its tireless and reckless quest for energy dominance,” said Erika Pollard of the NPCA. “These decisions, happening with little to no opportunity for the public to weigh in, could irreparably damage these treasures for current and future generations.”

Groups fear increased leasing, which could speed up the pace of drilling, in the Uinta Basin and worsen the wintertime ozone problems plaguing that region.

“Many in the basin, including industry, are working to solve the ozone issue,” said Deborah Burney-Sigman, executive director of Breathe Utah. “Seems like selling leases and buying them now is ill-advised.”

With its six quarterly auctions from December 2017 to March 2019 in Utah, the BLM has offered — or will offer — about 500 parcels spanning more than 735,000 acres, according to Newell. That’s a sevenfold jump from a comparable time period during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

The Trump administration’s rush to lease is “a disservice to the American people and unlawful,” Newell said. “We intend to challenge these uninformed leasing decisions in court.”