As BLM completes Utah resource plans, possible December lease sale draws fire

New resource management plans for five of the US Bureau of Land Management's six Utah field offices received final approval on Oct. 31, while the sixth is being reviewed at the US Department of the Interior.

State BLM officials are emphasizing the agency's effort to change how it manages acreage under its jurisdiction in the Beehive State. Area oil and gas associations said that the new plans are welcome news for consumers and businesses.

Environmental organizations in the state and region, meanwhile, were more concerned about a lease sale they expected BLM to announce on Nov. 4 because they believed it would include areas which they said BLM previously had declared "wilderness caliber landscapes."

"This has been a truly collaborative effort in balanced stewardship for the future. We are pleased to have the plans completed and look forward to moving into the implementation phase of the planning process," Utah State BLM Director Selma Sierra said.

She said the new plans will help the agency meet a variety of challenges that have emerged since the previous RMPs were written about 25 years ago. Each new plan took an average of six years to complete because BLM wanted to ensure that commitments they represented were followed through, she indicated.

Tried to strike balance

During the planning process, the agency was committed to balance protecting environmentally sensitive areas with supporting energy resource development in Utah, state BLM officials said.

In the new plans, 53% of the acres open to oil and gas leasing are subject to stricter environmental controls, with 18% of the lands within the planning areas unavailable for leasing under any circumstance, they said.

BLM also has committed in each plan to find innovative ways to minimize the oil and gas production footprint on public lands through directional drilling, well placement, sound muffling, and other best management practices, they said.

Kathleen Sgamma, government affairs director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States in Denver, said that Utah's BLM staff had a difficult job trying to balance multiple, often competing interests and respond to nearly 220,000 public comments and 87 formal protests.

Oil and gas production in Utah occupies less than 1% of public land there, she pointed out. With current technology and industry practices, producers are able to develop vital energy resources now, and reclaim the land to its original condition afterwards, she said.

'Small and temporary impacts'

"We hope BLM took into account the small and temporary impacts of natural gas development and recognized that energy production and other uses of public lands in Utah can and do co-exist. We are pleased to see that BLM is finally taking this step to sign the Records of Decision (ROD) for these RMPs, and are looking forward to reviewing the final decisions contained in the RODs," Sgamma said.

Area environmental organizations are more concerned with what they say will be a move by BLM to offer oil and gas leases in the Nine Mile Canyon region of eastern Utah on Dec. 19.

"What makes this action by the Interior Department so deplorable is that BLM itself determined these areas to be wilderness-quality lands," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Salt Lake City.

SUWA said that the tracts which BLM plans to offer are dominated by acreage which the agency determined had wilderness character after conducting inventories from 1996 to 1999 and from 2001 to 2007. They are largely all part of land proposed for wilderness designation in legislation introduced during the 110th Congress, the organization said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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