BLM resumes oil and gas leasing in Utah

Is “Colt Walker,” a prolific filer of expressions of interest on Utah public lands, even a real person?

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Pump jacks pull up hydrocarbons in the Three Rivers oil field southwest of Vernal, pictured on June 14, 2019. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management resumed offering oil and gas leases in the Uinta Basin after a federal judged ordered the Biden administration to lift is leasing moratorium.

Under pressure from a recent court order, the Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday resumed offering leases for oil and gas development on public lands in several Western states. But the offerings are slim, including just six parcels covering 6,658 acres in Utah, and they won’t be auctioned until next year, more than a year since the last sale.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden imposed a moratorium on new leases while the Interior Department undertook a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program that critics contend is rigged to the detriment of taxpayers, wild landscapes and the climate.

Industry challenged the moratorium in court and recently convinced a judge to order Interior to lift the moratorium, even though the review has yet to be completed. In response, the BLM on Tuesday announced modest offerings around the West to be sold in the first quarter of 2022.

Environmental activists, who generally welcomed Biden’s move to reform the leasing program, denounced Tuesday’s offerings, arguing the BLM still holds the discretion to offer nothing, particularly since so much acreage had been released in service to former President Donald Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda.

“You have the agency recognizing repeatedly that the system is broken,” said Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “They’ve been quick to point out the flaws in the program, but despite that, they are bound by the court decision. And so they have to go through the process, at least, of leasing while knowing and publicly acknowledging that the whole process is broken.”

On Tuesday, the BLM opened a 30-day “scoping period” for environmental reviews of the proposed offerings in Utah and other states. The public has until Oct. 1 to submit comments.

Four of the Utah parcels are in Uintah County, with one in Grand County and one in Emery County.

The Denver-based Western Energy Alliance insists the BLM must move forward with all the parcels that had been slated for sale in the first half of 2021 under the previous administration.

“Announcing yet more analysis of lease parcels without scheduling the actual sales this year complies with neither the letter of the law nor the spirit of the judge’s order overturning the leasing ban,” said the trade association’s President Kathleen Sgamma. “The environmental analysis was already completed for parcels that were ready to go to auction at the beginning of the year before the unlawful leasing ban was announced. There is no need to redo that analysis.”

Biden campaigned on a pledge to rein in oil and gas leasing on public lands as a key step toward reducing carbon emissions, which are responsible for climate change. The increasing fury of both hurricanes in the South and wildfire in the West has been attributed to planetary warming.

Activists say Biden is backtracking on his commitment to tackle the climate crisis, while industry groups say he’s violating Mineral Leasing Act and Interior policy that directs the BLM to hold statewide auctions every quarter. Sgamma accused the Biden administration of using further environmental analyses as a pretext to justify its foot-dragging.

Indeed, the amount of land proposed for leasing is a small fraction of the parcels “nominated” by industry, which includes dozens inside or beside the former boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, according to a SUWA analysis. Biden is widely expected to restore the monument boundaries that had been reduced by Trump.

Since the leasing moratorium took effect in January, industry has filed 376 “expressions of interest” covering about 100,000 acres in Utah, mostly in San Juan County, according to a BLM database. The chances that the BLM would lease these parcels are slim to none, but the fact that anyone can ask the BLM to lease such lands is further evidence that the leasing program does not align with the public interest and unnecessarily drains BLM resources, Newell said.

One of the nominators is identified as “Colt Walker,” who filed 116 expressions of interest in June, most of them for land along the eastern boundary of Bears Ears’ Sash Ja unit and in Grand County north of Canyonlands National Park. That name is likely a pseudonym, referencing a famous firearm of the same name which had been designated Texas’ official state handgun only a few weeks before.

“Look how easy is for this fake individual, Colt Walker, to nominate huge swaths of Utah’s redrock wilderness for leasing without any consequences. He doesn’t have to pay anything,” Newell said. “No one wins in that scenario and the BLM has to spend all these resources vetting them.”