Oil and gas leasing on federal lands is revving up in Colorado and across the West, with shorter time frames for comment and bigger lease sales as environmental groups rushed to meet the July 30 deadline to get in their protests on the upcoming September lease sales.
“We’ve gone from a 30-day protest period to a 10-day period. … We’re scrambling,” said Nada Culver, a senior counsel with the Wilderness Society, a national environmental group. “We don’t have a lot of time to weigh in.”
The time frames for review and public comment on oil and gas lease sales have been cut as part of a regulatory streamlining by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in large part to further the Trump administration’s goal of developing the nation’s energy resources.
The Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department that manages 248 million acres of federal land and oversees oil and gas leasing on that land, was directed to step up the pace on its quarterly lease sales.
The leasing process has been “condensed” to six months, when in the past it might take a year or more for parcels to come up for auction, said Rebecca Baca, BLM oil and gas leasing lead for Colorado.
While environmental groups are voicing concern about the speed of the process, industry officials see it as a rebalancing.
“We are now where companies who want to purchase leases and move forward with development, can move forward with more certainty,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group. “It is getting on with the business of leases.”
The Colorado lease sale for this September includes 20 parcels in about half-a-dozen counties covering 6,894 acres, with parcels ranging in size from 20 acres to 1,265 acres. Most of the proposed leases are in Garfield and Weld counties.
Parcels can be nominated for auction by anyone, though it is usually done by drillers or landowners.
Often, there is no public information about who is the nominator.
The nominator doesn’t have to pay a fee or even bid on the parcel.
Washington has been pressing for more lease sales even when there aren’t nominations, said Matt Sandler, attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, an environmental group.
Emails obtained by Rocky Mountain Wild through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the Colorado BLM office was considering not having a March lease sale because it didn’t have new nominations.
“We’ve been seeing some pushback from the Main Interior, regarding lease sale postponements,” Jennifer Spencer, a BLM leasing minerals specialist, wrote in an email to Rachel Vaughan in the Colorado office.
“I would echo what Jennifer said below. I talked to Rachel about it yesterday,” Jully McQuilliams, a Washington-based BLM senior minerals leasing specialist, said in a follow-up email.
The BLM Colorado office ended up nominating parcels for the March sale. “BLM has the authority to self-nominate, if it is in the best interest of the United States,” Baca said. “We had our petroleum engineer go through that part of southern Colorado looking for drainage issues.”
The March parcels fetched about $10,000 in bids. The June sale raised $1.4 million.
“A lot of the activity is driven by market forces as much as anything,” said Steven Hall, a spokesman for BLM Colorado.
In general, interest and participation in Colorado BLM lease sales have been high with more than 85 percent of the parcels leased at auction in the last two years.
Colorado and BLM state offices provide a “public scoping” period when parcels are proposed. This time has been cut to 15 days from 30 days.
The public then gets to comment on the environmental assessment of the lease sale. That time has been cut to 15 days from 30 days.
Finally, when the BLM makes final the parcels set for the sale, the public now gets 10 days instead of 30 to develop detailed challenges to leases, called protests.
Adding to the complexity is that the lease sales used to be rotated among Colorado’s district offices, but this sale will be statewide, with each office having a separate environmental assessment and documents.
BLM’s Baca said that with the rotation, “a parcel could be nominated, but not come up for as long as two years.”
The concern of critics is that the process will be neither orderly nor thorough.
“It doesn’t seem fair strategy,” said Mark Squillace, director the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Boulder law school. “It is unprecedented in how this administration is approaching all these issues. … One of my concerns with the frantic pace is there will be a lack of planning.”
Selling the leases isn’t the final decision that will enable development, Squillace said. That will come with issuing drilling permits. So, there are still places on the regulatory route for challenges.
Many of the leases also come with restrictions on the parcels. In the September lease sale, these include restrictions protecting big game winter ranges, old growth forests, raptor breeding territory and steep slopes.
Sgamma said that this underscores how, even with the Trump administration’s support, it remains difficult to work on federal lands.
“You try to stay on nonfederal lands if you can,” she said.