A closer look at BLM's 'hastily approved' Utah resource management plans

Environmental organizations opposing the US Bureau of Land Management's latest Utah oil and gas lease sale were elated when a federal district court judge on Jan. 17 issued a temporary restraining order preventing BLM from moving forward with the leases.

The ruling by Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the US District Court for Washington, DC, will keep the US Department of the Interior agency from cashing checks issued for contested tracts until the merits of their Dec. 17 lawsuit can be argued, the groups said in a joint press release.

They reiterated charges that acreage near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine-Mile Canyon in eastern Utah was included in the Dec. 18 lease sale after Utah's BLM state office hastily approved resource management plans for 3 million acres of public land.

"Under the Bush administration, [BLM] pushed through [RMPs] that treated some of America's most sensitive and spectacular public lands as the private playgrounds of the oil and gas companies," said Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust.

'No corners were cut'

That idea doesn't square with what Utah BLM employees told me several days before Urbina issued his temporary restraining order. "Every plan followed a full process. No corners were cut. Some of these plans took 7-8 years to complete, while others took 4-5 years, the more typical arc," said Don Ogaard, BLM's state planning leader in Utah.

RMPs contain broad goals, objectives, and management prescriptions and goals, he told me during a Jan. 12 telephone interview. "They cover the complete range of resources and uses," he said.

They also follow the multiple use concept mandated in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act under which activities are supposed to co-exist to the greatest extent possible, Ogaard continued.

"Under the new plans, most of the new areas opened to oil and gas leasing would carry some form of protective stipulation. Many leases will carry stipulations with respect to seasonally important wildlife habitat. Only about 35% of the land would be open to leasing under the standard terms and conditions," he continued.

Some key differences

A look at BLM's Utah website shows the differences between the old and new RMPs. Acreage available for oil and gas leasing was reduced by about 100,000 acres. Land available for leasing under standard terms dropped from nearly 5.2 million acres to 3.6 million acres, while land available for leasing subject to controlled surface use or timing stipulations rose from 3 million to 4 million acres.

"Certain leases, less than 10%, are issued under no surface occupancy requirements. Producers would have to drill horizontally or directionally from off the leasehold," Ogaard said. Acreage for leasing under such stipulations nearly doubled from 464,166 acres in the old plans to 890,277 acres in the new ones. Land unavailable for oil and gas leasing rose from nearly 1.9 million acres to more than 2.1 million acres.

"We're always glad to address perceptions that vast new areas are being opened to drilling or that we're conducting fire sales. Virtually all the land that is being opened to leasing under new plans was opened previously under old plans. The difference is that the new RMPs put better plans in place," Ogaard said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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