BLM leases 135,000 acres of public land to oil and gas companies in massive auction

Washington • The Bureau of Land Management leased more than 135,000 acres of public land in a massive auction this week that will allow more oil and gas exploration in the Uinta Basin.

Most of the parcels leased are in the Book Cliffs region, an area known for big game, as well as a plant that may be placed on the endangered species list. It’s the largest undeveloped region in the basin.

In northern Utah, there were no bids in the auction for land near the Golden Spike National Historical Park, though the parcels remain available for over-the-counter purchase at $1.50 an acre for the next two years.

Environmentalists argue that the BLM is rushing through leasing of public lands at an increasing rate as part of the Trump administration’s push to develop U.S. energy dominance.

“BLM’s leasing decision ignored greenhouse gas pollution and climate change impacts from oil and gas development and the agency provided the same – unlawful – justifications for its failure to analyze these impacts that were struck down earlier this month by a federal court in Washington, D.C.,” said Landon Newell, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This leasing decision will meet the same fate.”

A federal judge ruled last week that the BLM could not offer new leases on public lands in Wyoming without further environmental assessment and ordered a review of hundreds of current leases because the government hadn’t thoroughly probed their impacts on climate change.

The ruling didn't affect Utah, though environmental groups say it provides a roadmap to challenge scores of leases in the state.

This week’s lease auction yielded just over $7.2 million, a low sum in the oil and gas business and an indication, SUWA said, that energy companies don’t have immediate plans to drill and that the supply of public lands is eclipsing demand.

The BLM, under President Donald Trump, has auctioned off seven times more public lands than former President Barack Obama over a similar time period, according to SUWA.

“With this sale, the Trump administration has followed a well-worn path of ‘lease first, and think later,’ the same approach taken by the George W. Bush administration’s ‘drill here, drill now’ policies,” Newell said. “This approach, which has riddled Utah’s wild and culturally significant public lands with leases and should come as no surprise given that it’s the same political appointee – David Bernhardt – steering the Interior Department.”

Trump has appointed Bernhardt as Interior Department secretary and the Senate is expected to hear from him this week on his way to being confirmed by the GOP-led chamber.

About 90 parcels were leased out of the 111 that the BLM offered up in Utah.

The bureau shelved the proposal to lease 19 parcels of land near the original boundaries of the Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and the Hovenweep national monuments after protests by SUWA and others. However, those areas could again be on the market in another auction scheduled for September.

Josh Ewing, the executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, which seeks preservation for areas in Utah's southeastern region, said it's likely just a a temporary move from the government leasing out those lands rich in archeological assets.

“It looks like it may just be a procedural delay and they'll be back on the auction block or the fire sale for September,” Ewing said.

He said the sale shows that oil and gas companies may be stockpiling leases because of low prices and the glut of leases already offered.

“At a certain point, you’re just not going to pay that much to sit on these leases,” Ewing said.