Public pays the price for “energy dominance”

Interior Department silences local input in favor of oil and gas drilling on public lands

Oil and gas development in Wyoming’s Absaroka-Beartooth Front, an important wildlife corridor | EcoFlight

This week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) quietly moved to kill oil and gas leasing policies designed to balance responsible energy development with outdoor recreation, wildlife, and water supplies. The move effectively strips the leasing process of opportunities for public input, silencing Western voices and continuing a trend of dwindling public participation under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership, all in the name of “energy dominance.”

On Wednesday, the BLM issued an internal Instruction Memorandum overhauling 2010 oil and gas leasing reforms put in place by the Obama administration. The memorandum takes the president’s “energy dominance” agenda to the next level, rubber-stamping new oil and gas leases by:

  • Making the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review process optional
  • Axing required site visits for proposed leases
  • Limiting the window to protest controversial leases to 10 days (down from 30)

And perhaps most egregious, the memorandum makes providing opportunities for public participation in the NEPA review process optional. It reads, “State and field offices may provide for public participation during the NEPA process as part of the review of parcels identified for potential leasing.”

The memorandum also kills Master Leasing Plans, a “smart from the start approach” implemented during the Obama administration to help the BLM be more inclusive of the public, and avoid conflicts between energy development and other public lands uses at the front-end of planning.

A pumpjack in close proximity to homes in Weld County, CO | EcoFlight

In 2010, when the Obama administration issued the reforms, oil and gas leasing was being driven by companies who decided when, where, and how energy development happened on U.S. public lands. Too often this industry-dominated process occurred at the expense of other critical uses, including outdoor recreation, wildlife protection, clean air, and fresh water. These common sense policies were put in place to restore balance to land management in the West, where the oil and gas industry has historically enjoyed unfettered access to U.S. public lands. Currently, 90 percent of lands managed by the BLM are open to oil and gas leasing and development, only the remaining 10 percent are protected for recreation, conservation, and wildlife.

By axing the Obama administration’s 2010 leasing reforms, Interior Secretary Zinke has further tipped the scales to favor extractive energy development, effectively silencing the voices of public lands stakeholders throughout the West. The administration’s new memorandum erases language ensuring that “there was no presumed preference for oil and gas” over other uses of our national public lands. Already oil and gas companies hold nearly 8,000 approved, but unused drilling permits — a record high — and sit on over 14 million acres of unused public lands leases, an area larger than Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont combined.

In a recent poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Westerners were asked which use of public lands the administration should emphasize: ensuring we protect sources of clean water, our air quality, and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities to visit and recreate on our national public lands or ensuring we produce more domestic energy by maximizing the amount of national public lands available for responsible oil and gas drilling and mining. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, Westerners think protecting public lands and preserving access to the outdoors should be the Trump administration’s priority.

Hikers at Yellowstone National Park

In his confirmation hearing as Interior Secretary, Zinke laid out his priorities. At the top of the list: public input. “The first is to restore trust by working with rather than against local communities and states…. Being a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary is a good start,” he said. But despite his promises, Secretary Zinke’s first year has amounted to a steady eroding of public participation. From refusing to meet with key tribal advocates and local business owners in Utah to putting the BLM’s local stakeholder Resource Advisory Council meetings on ice and failing to convene the National Park Service Advisory Board, it’s clear who has the Secretary’s ear — and it’s certainly not the public.

Speaking to the Taos News, Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Greg Zimmerman described the Interior Department’s efforts to whittle away at public participation: “Unless you’re a big oil and gas company with a lobbyist, you’ll have a heck of a time getting your voice heard. This administration frankly doesn’t care what people in [Western] communities think.”