CWF urges BLM to postpone oil and gas lease sales during pandemic

As the nation grapples with the many impacts of the corona virus (COVID-19) on our health and its substantial disruptions to us personally, the economy and our society, the Administration continues to move ahead with proposed regulations that will have adverse impacts to wildlife. As the national and global economy take a deep dive, and people’s focus has shifted to protecting and preserving health, safety and worrying about their livelihoods, the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continue prioritize oil and gas and energy dominance use of public lands it manages. This energy dominance agenda disregards the needs of wildlife, and as Coloradans are distracted right now, it leaves most without an ability to weigh in on proposed decisions that will shape how our public lands are used and managed for years to come.

In late March, BLM held its quarterly oil and gas lease sale, spanning nearly 19,000 acres, many of which are located in northwest Colorado’s North Park. Nearly all of those parcels in North Park are located on lands with priority greater sage grouse habitat and big game winter range that, according to BLM, have low oil and gas potential. BLM had already leased plenty of public lands in North Park, including many that have low potential for oil and gas development but are important big game habitat. Unsurprisingly, just under half of the parcels offered for lease were actually sold.

BLM also is continuing with business as usual for two more lease sales in Colorado, scheduled for June and September. Public comments on the proposed September sale were due April 14 and the protest period for the June sale will begin very soon. Of course, CWF and NWF submitted comments by the April 14 deadline, pointing out again that the sale should be cancelled and then proceeded to list harm to wildlife if several of the nominated parcels are offered for sale.

And numerous parcels are in areas with low oil and gas potential as is apparent from BLM’s own analysis. The agency just doesn’t seem to take this reality into account. For the agency to continue on this track in the midst of the pandemic is irresponsible. These sales continue the disturbing trend of leasing millions of acres on Federal land with very low potential for development. Not surprisingly, lease sales in low potential areas lead to no bids, allowing the BLM to subsequently lease the vast majority of the acreage through a non-competitive process. This outcome is even more likely given the current state of the oil and gas market. This practice is not only unfair to taxpayers, but in locking up these acres for oil and gas interests, BLM fails to manage these lands for other uses and is thereby violating its multiple use mandate under the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA). Moreover, this practice creates additional paperwork burden for little to no benefit to the State or to taxpayers. Given the national crisis, BLM should be working on lightening the paperwork burden and focusing on tasks that are truly essential. Leasing lands that are highly unlikely to ever be developed should not be considered essential.

BLM’s public comment periods for the final version of the Browns Canyon National Monument Resource Management Plan and also for the proposed motorized e-bike regulations for non-motorized trails are in process and these periods close, respectively, May 18 and June 9. (As to the motorized e-bike issue, there are an abundance of miles and trails open to motorized e-bike use. Our concern is allowing motorized e-bikes in the public lands back country within sensitive wildlife habitat. The proposed rule would direct its officers to allow that use through land-use planning processes.)

With all of these conflicts and risks to wildlife on our public lands, Coloradans deserve ample opportunities to weigh in on the plans and to speak out when necessary. But with the state’s COVID-19 orders and people’s attention rightfully focused elsewhere, this public input simply is unattainable, especially for many who have very slow internet service. Department of Interior Secretary often has stated that the Administration’s goal is to hear from local people. Therefore, it is mystifying why the Department is not doing everything possible to ensure public access. Holding public comment periods as though there are no barriers to participation seems to render this proclaimed intent meaningless.

BLM has a mandate to manage our public lands in a responsible manner that allow for multiple uses: outdoor recreation, conservation of wildlife habitat, and some resource development. But when the public is cut out of the process, everyday people are unable to respond in the way that industry can. In the context of oil and gas, by not acknowledging the current crisis, and acting accordingly, the Administration is giving industry the upper hand instead of ensuring that public lands here in Colorado are managed for the public’s benefit.

Simply put, the Department of Interior and its BLM immediately should delay all oil and gas lease sales and public comment periods on other planning processes until the pandemic subsides and at least “phase 2” has been in place for a period of time and is working.

— Suzanne O’Neill, Executive Director, Colorado Wildlife Federation