BLM oil, gas lease sales in Colorado, West could be affected by federal ruling

BLM oil, gas lease sales in Colorado, West could be affected by federal ruling

  25 Sep 2018

A federal judge in Idaho has ruled that the public should have more say about upcoming oil and gas lease sales in greater sage grouse habitat in Western states, raising questions about the effect on a Dec. 6 auction in Colorado.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Ronald Bush in Pocatello, Idaho, issued a preliminary injunction Friday that temporarily replaces part of the Trump administration’s policy on the leasing of public lands with one by the Obama administration that gives the public more time to comment on and protest federal oil and gas leases. The decision will affect lease sales in December and beyond as the court considers a lawsuit by environmental groups that claims the Bureau of Land Management violated federal laws when it revised the policy earlier this year.

In Colorado, the BLM is offering oil and gas leases on a total of  224,341 acres of public lands in the December auction, mostly in the western part of the state. The state BLM office has said it is considering deferring action on some of the parcels and is still assessing 102,242 acres of the total.

The state BLM office doesn’t have information on what the impact might be of Bush’s ruling in Colorado, spokesman Steven Hall said.

“We’re reviewing the court’s ruling and evaluating how it may affect individual parcels in upcoming oil and gas lease sales,” said  Derrick Henry, acting spokesman for the national BLM office.

The lands singled out in Bush’s ruling are encompassed in state and federal plans from 2015 aimed at conserving greater sage grouse, whose numbers have been declining for decades. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said roughly 203,000 acres up for bid in Colorado could be affected.

The other plaintiff is the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.

“There are a bunch of ways the BLM could try to comply with the ruling” including postponing the lease sales, said Michael Saul, a Denver-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think it definitely has potential implications both for sage-grouse habitat in particular and for BLM leasing policy more generally.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based trade group, said her organization will encourage the federal government to appeal the Idaho judge’s ruling. The organization and the state of Wyoming filed as interveners on behalf of the federal government in the lawsuit.

“This is definitely a case of an activist judge who is trying to assert policy and the law be damned,” Sgamma said. “The administration has the discretion to set policy.”

If the opportunity to bid on oil and gas leases is put on hold it will add needless delay to the leasing process for oil and gas companies, Sgamma said.

The lawsuit by the environmental groups in part challenged changes the BLM made in January that shortened the time periods for public comment and revised requirements for environmental review to try to streamline and speed up the leasing process.

In his ruling, Bush said the BLM has discretion in setting policy as long as it complies with federal laws requiring public involvement in decisions. However, he said, when it revised the Obama-era policy there’s evidence the “BLM made an intentional decision to limit the opportunity for (and even in some circumstances to preclude entirely) any contemporaneous public involvement in decisions concerning whether to grant oil and gas leases on federal lands.”

Earlier this month, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet sent letters to the Colorado BLM to postpone sale of the parcels up for lease in December because of concerns about the potential impacts on wildlife, including sage grouse, and a lack of opportunity for public participation.

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