Oil and Gas Leasing in Utah: The Back Story
--by Richard Lance Christie
On November 6, the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized that “Bush administration officials are rushing to implement new rules and change old ones before they pack up and leave Washington….The losers are the West’s wildlife, archaeological treasures, fragile forests and deserts and all Americans who want to enjoy the quiet beauty of public lands, breathe clean air and drink clean water.” “The hurried-up [Bureau of Land Management Regional] plans, five of which were released last week, are an eleventh-hour effort of Bush’s BLM to eliminate federal protections for Utah’s redrock treasures and give extractive industries and motorized recreationists a virtual free hand.”
Bureaucratic nanoseconds after the Moab and Vernal Regional Management Plans were adopted, an oil and gas lease sale of 360,000 acres of lands in these Utah regions was announced. These lands included 100,000 acres adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument and 57,000 acres inside roadless areas nominated for wilderness protection in the Red Rock Wilderness Act currently before Congress with 116 co-sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate. They even included a parcel wedged between (and under) half-million-dollar homes in the Highlands subdivision and the Moab Golf Course in Spanish Valley.
The BLM has a standing agreement with its sister agency in the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service (NPS), that the NPS be notified in advance of any parcels proposed for oil and gas leasing which might affect visual or air quality in a national park unit. This permits the NPS to evaluate impacts and ask the BLM withdraw parcels or put stipulations on leases to protect park lands from bad effects of oil and gas development next door. The BLM did not notify the NPS about any of the 100,000 acres of parcels near park units in the Utah lease sale bundle. When the NPS protested, the BLM ultimately refused to defer sale of a number of parcels of concern so the NPS could do their analysis of impacts and ask for appropriate mitigation stipulations on a parcel lease when it was auctioned. In mid-December, seven environmental groups filed suit against the BLM to stop the lease sale of these parcels that might impact national park units until the NPS could do their analysis and make recommendations.
An explosion of media stories and editorials followed. All had essentially the same theme: that this oil and gas lease sale was an environmentally-destructive, ill-considered, eleventh-hour surrender of public lands values to the extractive industry sponsors of the outgoing Bush administration. Examples include “Final Days Fire Sale” in the New York Times on December 13 , and a CBS television news documentary.
In an Op Ed in the 7 December Los Angeles Times, Terry Tempest-Williams wrote: “The last-minute land grab in Utah’s spectacular desert must be seen for what it is: not a boon for business but a bankruptcy of the imagination. What is actually being sold is the soul of a nation, one public parcel at a time.”
The BLM hastened to assure us that many sensitive parcels would be sold with “no surface occupancy” stipulations, and others would require the oil and gas rigs to be painted red in an effort to hide them in the viewscape. The problem with the “no surface occupancy” stipulation is that when a company acquires a BLM lease, it acquires a property right to the mineral resource which the BLM has a legal obligation to fulfill . Stipulations that require an oil company to stay off leases during Bighorn rutting season, for example, will allow the company to occupy and explore the lease at other times. In the past, when leaseholders could demonstrate that a “no surface occupancy” stipulation prevented them from exploring and developing a leased parcel, the stipulation was simply removed. Even with a “no surface occupancy” stipulation the BLM is obligated demonstrate that a viable drilling platform is available from which the leased parcel can be explored and developed for oil and gas. However, no such analysis was done for any parcel in the Utah sale.
Under pressure from a swarm of activists and environmental groups in southeastern Utah, of which I was one, the NPS and various other agencies, the BLM kept deferring the sale of particularly egregious parcels. However, none of us could figure out which parcels were still in the sale and which were actually deferred. And parcels deferred from immediate sale can still be offered at a later date. As of December 16, the BLM was saying that circa 150,000 acres of parcels would be auctioned on December 19, while our best guess from the BLM's incomplete revised maps was that it was closer to two thirds of the original 360,000 acres, or about 230,000 acres.
As reported in the December 20 Salt Lake Tribune, on Thursday evening December 18, just before the BLM lease sale on December 19 morning, seven conservation organization plaintiffs and the BLM reached a “stand down” agreement in federal court in Washington, D.C. The BLM agreed it would not issue leases on 80 contested parcels until, at earliest, January 19, 2009. Another federal court hearing on the matter was scheduled on January 12, 2009, to see if agreement between the plaintiffs, the BLM, and the NPS had been achieved on leasing or withdrawing the contested parcels. In other words, the environmental group plaintiffs won the deferral of lease of these parcels so the NPS could review their impacts.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, in the lease sale held in Salt Lake City on December 19, the “stood down” parcels were in fact offered for lease--including most of those bid on and “won” by Tim DeChristopher!
This leads us into a thicket of questions. How could DeChristopher illegally bid on a parcel that wasn’t legally for sale in the first place, but was on the block anyway in violation of the BLM’s settlement agreement before the federal court? How could the BLM let DeChristopher onto the bidding floor with a bidding paddle and kit without any check of bonding qualification to bid at the lease sale? If what DeChristopher did was technically illegal, was not what the BLM was doing also technically illegal? In their bum’s rush to get oil and gas leases sold out the door before the Bush administration comes to its ignominious end, there are at least a lot of legal loose ends in the BLM lease sale process – a fact a federal court has already agreed with for 80 of the parcels. This whole mess is an employment security package for attorneys.
Some have argued that all environmentalists opposing oil and gas leasing, including DeChristopher, are hypocrites because we use fossil fuels and “we need” to explore and develop all the fossil fuel resources we can in North America to achieve energy security. This is false. This link will take you to Plank One, Chapter One, of the “Renewable Deal” hosted here on the ManyOne Network’s Earth Restoration Portal. Plank One of the Renewable Deal concerns how we achieve energy security in a post-carbon world (other planks concern food security, water security, health promotion, education, transportation systems, and other features of this “Ecozoic society,” as Thomas Berry calls it). Chapter One of Plank One reviews the many cumulative studies done in the world on how we can build a renewables-based energy system by 2050 that has no fossil fuel inputs, no nuclear inputs, and produces no net greenhouse gases while producing more quads of energy than are projected to be needed in 2050 by the Energy Information Agency under a no-conservation “business-as-usual” demand scenario at a slightly lower cost per quad than we paid in 2003 for the existing system’s output, in 2003 constant dollars. And, this can be done using off-the-shelf 2008 Best Available Technology.
The Earth Restoration Portal and Renewable Deal are associated with the international Relocalization Network launched by the PostCarbon Institute. Tim DeChristopher has been active with the Post Carbon Salt Lake relocalization group, and was introduced to the Renewable Deal’s energy plank. In short, DeChristopher knows full well that we don’t need to rape the last remnants of our national heritage for fossil energy in the name of national energy security or independence. Instead, we need to be replacing our obsolete fossil-fuel-based energy system with the superior current-technology, renewables-based system outlined in the Renewable Deal, permitting the deliberate program of restoration of ecological integrity in the North American ecosystems described in Aspect One of the Renewable Deal to proceed.