BLM pulls back on Utah leases to do climate reviews

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Molen Reef, pictured here in Utah's Emery County, is filled with Fremont rock art in a rugged landscape the Bureau of Land Managements offered for oil and gas development in 2018. These leases are among the 130 the BLM suspended in Utah last month so it could conduct additional environmental studies examining their potential climate impacts.

Among President Donald Trump’s signature initiatives was pursuing “American energy dominance” through a series of regulatory rollbacks to fast-track fossil fuel development, regardless of the potential impacts on the global climate.

But that strategy may actually be slowing development on Utah’s and other Western states’ public lands because the Bureau of Land Management has been forced to reanalyze many of the oil and gas leases it sold in recent years.

For the fourth time in the past year, the BLM’s Utah office last month pulled back dozens of leases covering thousands of acres after acknowledging that its environmental analysis was inadequate in light of a successful court challenge to leases in another state, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The latest suspensions stemmed from a lawsuit SUWA brought with Living Rivers and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenging the sales of 130 leases covering 175,357 acres across Utah, including Emery County’s San Rafael Swell and Molen Reef, lands along the Green and White rivers, the Book Cliffs and in a part of San Juan County, where ancient American Indians left a rich record of their occupation.

“This map is only going to get bigger. This is a mess of BLM’s own making. This is the outcome of the blind rush for energy dominance,” SUWA staff attorney Landon Newell said. “It has completely backfired. They offered all these leases with as little analysis as possible, and here is the outcome.”

Some of these leases date back to November 2014, when the BLM was overseen by Sally Jewell, President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, although the majority were offered after Ryan Zinke, under Trump, succeeded Jewell. None has been developed, according to Newell. All told, Newell estimated that the BLM has pulled 240 Utah leases spanning 300,000 acres.

The BLM’s Utah office said it remains committed to responsible development of the energy resources it administers and is conducting “curative" analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on leases issued under five different sales from November 2014 to December 2018.

“Once the analysis is complete, the BLM will issue a new decision for each lease that may 1) cancel the lease; 2) modify the lease terms or 3) lift suspension without modification,” BLM spokeswoman Rachel Wootton said. "The NEPA analysis is focused on potential greenhouse-gas emissions associated with potential lease development and hydrocarbon production and climate change impacts due to greenhouse gases. "

Since Trump took office in 2017, the BLM’s Utah lease offerings have mushroomed sevenfold over a similar time frame during Obama’s presidency, SUWA’s suit contends. To promote Trump’s energy agenda, then-Interior Secretary Zinke issued an order requiring the agency to identify policies and procedures that inhibit oil and gas development on public lands.

The BLM’s pace of leasing had slowed after Obama entered the White House in 2009, particularly in Utah, where Interior was forced to withdraw at least 77 leases hurriedly offered in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. Eco-activist Tim DeChristopher went to prison for entering phony bids on several of those leases.

The Obama administration brought many reforms, requiring the BLM to exercise greater care in deciding what parcels to lease. Those reforms, which included master leasing, went out the window soon after Zinke’s arrival in Washington, when the former Montana congressman arrived at his office on horseback.

In the meantime, a large backlog of industry-nominated parcels had built up on Jewell’s watch, held back because of the potential to degrade artifacts, national parks, recreation, sage grouse habitat and other nonenergy resources should they get drilled.

In response to Zinke’s directives, the BLM adopted instructions that restricted opportunities for public involvement in leasing decisions and encouraged BLM staffers to rely on existing environmental analyses, rather than develop site-specific studies when reviewing new leasing proposals, the SUWA suit alleges.

“BLM officials are starting to recognize the error in their rush to ignore climate science and public health to unleash a fracking frenzy," said Diana Dascalu-Joffe, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the administration must acknowledge the irreparable harm these irrational decisions have on our fragile climate.”

SUWA and its allies hung their legal arguments on a March 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras for the District of Columbia that invalidated numerous Wyoming leases after concluding the BLM failed to analyze “reasonably foreseeable” greenhouse-gas emissions and climate impacts.

The ruling in that case, brought by Denver-based WildEarth Guardians, has had a cascading effect across the West, where the BLM faces challenges to nearly all leases it has offered since Trump took office three years ago. SUWA’s lawyers argued Contreras’ logic applied to the Utah leases, and the BLM apparently agreed, saying as much in September letters to leaseholders informing them they could not develop their leases until the “curative” analysis was completed.

“This is a train wreck going on right now,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth energy program director. “You’re going to see more litigation, you’re going to see more appeals, and they’re going to do everything they can to try to keep the train on the rails. But, man, it’s off. ... They’re getting what they deserve. They cut corners and dismissed the public, and this is what they get.”

Nichols has long argued that the BLM should estimate the volumes of carbon dioxide that would be released when the oil, gas and coal from public lands are extracted, processed and consumed. Unnatural buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting from the rampant burning of fossil fuels, is warming the planet to a dangerous point, according to a scientific consensus that Trump rejects.

In more recent environmental studies, the BLM said the necessary greenhouse-gas analysis was completed for its two upcoming quarterly sales, as well as those conducted since the Contreras ruling.

On Tuesday, the agency will offer 24 leases covering 13,422 acres all over Utah, including nine in an archaeologically sensitive region around San Juan County’s Montezuma Canyon. At a March 10 sale, the BLM will offer 25 mostly contiguous parcels covering 32,714 acres in the Uinta Basin. These proposed leases, west and south of Vernal, cover areas that have become popular for mountain biking, including McCoy Flats and Halfway Hollow. Most of this land is within designated priority habitat for greater sage grouse.

Activists insist the BLM should take a “programmatic” look at its oil and gas program’s climate impacts, rather than a piecemeal approach that examines leases in isolation.

“The BLM acts like nothing else is happening in other districts or field offices or even other states,” Nichols said. “They’re leasing in every Western state huge amounts of public land. It’s happening at the same time in the same region with similar climate consequences. Our federal environmental laws are very clear that, in those situations, you’ve got to step back and take a much bigger look at your activities.”