Feds yank oil and gas leases near Arches, Canyonlands parks from upcoming sale

(Photo Courtesy Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) The BLM has scuttled its plans to sell oil and gas leases on 87,000 acres of scenic public land near Canyonlands and Arches national parks, including parts of Hatch Canyon, at its Sept. 28 auction. The city of Moab and Grand County had urged BLM to cancel the sale, citing the importance of these lands to the local recreation economy.

Bowing to the wishes of Grand County officials, the Bureau of Land Management will not offer oil and gas leases on 87,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks it had proposed for its quarterly auction next month.

The surprise move will avoid what many critics said would be a replay of the BLM’s 2008 leasing debacle when the outgoing administration of George W. Bush attempted to lease vast swaths of redrock terrain in the same area, only to see the auction monkey-wrenched by a climate activist’s phony bids. That sale was later invalidated because it had not been properly reviewed and led to leasing reforms that the Trump administration has largely scuttled in its zeal to maximize energy development on public lands.

That criticism may have had an impact on the freshly installed head of Utah’s BLM office.

“Understanding the nature of the proposed parcels, as well as gathering input from local communities, partners and the public are a priority for me as the new state director for BLM Utah,” Greg Sheehan said Tuesday in announcing the scaled-back auction. “The BLM supports the recreation and tourism industry as an important source of revenue in Utah, while also responsibly leasing and supporting our nation’s energy independence.”

The former head of Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, Sheehan only stepped into the BLM post last week and had no role in the original lease proposal or its environmental review.

Environmental groups that had been fighting the sale called Tuesday’s move the “right decision.”

“This particular sale highlights why the odious practice of oil and gas leasing on public needs to come to a halt: the proposed leases in southeast Utah were located on some of Utah’s wildest public lands, lands with at best a trivial amount of oil and gas but where development would scar the land for decades if not permanently,” Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Moreover, Bloch charged, “The bureau failed to properly consult with Native American tribes about impacts of leasing and development to culturally significant resources; local communities had been ignored in the rush to lease; and, developing fossil fuels is fundamentally inconsistent with addressing the looming climate crisis.”

At its Sept. 28 online auction, the BLM will go forward with the sale of 23 parcels elsewhere in the state, totaling 27,000 acres, a fairly small offering in comparison with many Utah lease auctions under Donald Trump’s presidency. It will be the last before he faces a reelection that could result in a new administration with much different priorities for public lands.

While the September sale had been defended by industry representatives, the Grand County and Moab City councils both sent letters to the BLM urging it to cancel the sale. About one-third of these contested leases were in San Juan County, whose commissioners declined to take an official position one way or the other.

Even Utah’s public lands policy director, Kathleen Clark, normally bullish on leasing, asked the BLM to proceed with caution, citing the recreational values of the land and their importance to Moab’s outdoor economy.

“The State understands [Moab and Grand County’s] concerns and asks the BLM to re-examine the entire September oil and gas lease sale portfolio in Grand County to ensure that all parcels are in fact compatible with the tremendous recreational values found throughout the area,” she wrote in the state’s official comments submitted July 9. “Additionally, information provided by the public during the formal comment period identifying specific lease parcels that conflict with identifiable recreational uses should receive special consideration as to whether those parcels should be deferred.”

And last week, a group of 16 Democratic U.S. senators, including three recent presidential candidates, asked Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to cancel September’s sale. Their request noted the collapse in demand for oil and gas leases in the face of the pandemic, arguing that the sale would generate very little revenue while putting at risk the area’s supreme scenic values.

These proposed leases were in the BLM’s “master leasing plan” for the Moab area, set up by the Barack Obama administration to ensure greater care went into leasing decisions for these sensitive lands in light of past leasing missteps.

Last June, Kathleen Sgamma, a leading advocate for the oil and gas industry, said Moab and Grand County’s positions were “frustrating” given the extra layer of scrutiny created by master leasing.

“The BLM has more than balanced recreation and tourism with oil and natural gas leasing in the area surrounding Moab,” wrote Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, in an email. Under Obama, the agency delayed proposed leasing for years while it developed a master leasing plan, conducting additional analysis based on extensive public input.

“Yet when BLM tries to move forward with leasing following that [master leasing plan], the city [of Moab] is once again saying no. The reality is that the proposed leases are miles away from national park boundaries, and those closer in are designated under the most severe restriction of No Surface Occupancy, meaning there can be no work on the actual surface of those leases,” Sgamma wrote. “All leases carry additional restrictions to ensure scenic, recreational, wildlife and other values are protected. Recreation and energy can both be a balanced part of the local economy. They’re not mutually exclusive.”