ALAMOSA — The plane banked to reveal an ocean of sand, rippling beneath the jagged Sangre de Cristo mountains.
“Right here,” said hydrologist Amos Mace, pointing to a copse of spruces near the home where he grew up about a mile from the border of Great Sand Dunes National Park. “They could drill right there. That is not right.”
President Donald Trump’s plan for U.S. energy dominance has arrived in Colorado’s mountains as the Bureau of Land Management plans to offer a massive swath of land for oil and gas development in December.
The agency, which manages 248 million acres of federal land and oversees all of the nation’s federal oil and gas leasing, is streamlining its leasing process with a high-paced procedure that includes limiting the window for public input and forgoing environmental review for some parcels.
On Dec. 7, the agency will offer 223 parcels totaling more than 224,000 acres in 11 Colorado counties, a record-sized sale of oil and gas leases. Similarly huge lease sales in other states are galvanizing environmental groups and politicians in a call for the agency to take a step back and slow the process. New rules have not only shortened the timeframe for review to 10 days from 30, but they have also limited public comments to only 20 of the proposed lease parcels in the Colorado sale.
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“This new process is insufficient to allow for meaningful input,” Gov. John Hickenlooper wrote in a letter to the BLM last week that questioned plans for leasing parcels in the greater sage grouse habitat, near Paonia State Park and in big-game migration corridors. “Our frustration with the new policy extends beyond large parcel volumes and short timelines.”
In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office sent a memo to all BLM field officials outlining a new policy to “simplify and streamline the leasing process to alleviate unnecessary impediments and burdens (and) to expedite the offering of lands for lease.”
That new policy said timelines for environmental review of all parcels up for lease will be no longer than six months. It said site visits were not required. It allowed for parcels to skip more intensive environmental review if the BLM’s resource management plans allow for leasing in the region, which precludes the need for public comment. That means that only 20 of the parcels offered in the December sale are open for comment, all in the Uncompahgre and Royal Gorge districts.
“Because they aren’t doing any formal environmental analysis, we don’t even know what’s happening,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.
Last year, the BLM’s state offices harvested $360 million from oil and gas lease sales nationwide, an 86 percent increase over 2016 and the highest tally in nearly 10 years. Oil and gas development rights to 949 parcels and 792,823 acres were sold. Since 2008, almost 1,200 parcel sales across 661,000 acres in Colorado have yielded $83.6 million, 49 percent of which goes to Colorado and 51 percent to the U.S. Treasury.
This year will break that record. The December sale in Colorado marks the largest in recent memory. Same for Utah, where the BLM plans to offer 225 parcels totaling more than 330,000 acres in December on top of 204,000 acres offered in September.
The deluge of lease-sale offering in Colorado follows several years of resource management planning and greater sage grouse protection plans in northwest Colorado, which had many energy companies waiting on the sidelines, BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan said.
“Now with greater sage grouse protections in place and a new resource management plan in place, we have pent-up demand for oil and gas leasing coming down the pipe,” Barangan said.
Colorado BLM spokesman Steven Hall said those resource-management plans took years to forge, with plenty of public comment helping decide what areas should be open for oil and gas exploration. That’s why the agency chose not to pursue more intensive environmental analysis of 190 parcels spanning 203,000 acres in northwest and central Colorado, instead issuing a determination that the leases comply with National Environmental Policy Act regulations.
“It’s important for the public to know that those resource-management plans took years and years to complete,” Hall said. “We are not really starting from scratch when a parcel is nominated for leasing.”
In Huerfano County, locals joined thousands of eastern Colorado residents in helping the BLM update its 1996 Resource Management Plan. The process began in 2015 as the agency sought direction for administering 658,000 acres of surface land and 3.3 million acres of underground minerals across a 35 million-acre swath of the state. The lengthy environmental review of the new management plan for the Royal Gorge Field Office was nearing completion when the agency proposed leasing mineral rights under private property near Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness and the upper watershed of the Huerfano River.
Locals had hoped the resource-management plan, due next year, would prohibit development in the areas abutting and beneath the national park and wilderness. But the BLM relied on its 1996 resource-management plan and offered up the area for oil and gas leasing. The owners of the property include Texas residents David and Crystal Watts, who own an energy company and acquired about 32,000 acres of the former Wolf Springs Ranch last fall. The Wattses, who own the property with MBOGO Energy, told Huerfano County officials that they planned to develop the property as an elk-hunting preserve.
The Navajo Nation acquired 16,000 acres of the ranch at about the same time.
The Navajo Nation, which considers the ancestral land sacred, joined local and national environmental groups, the Huerfano County Board of Commissioners and the Environmental Protection Agency this summer in urging the BLM to consider deferring the mineral-lease sale near the national park. They didn’t have long to rally their efforts, with the comment period for protesting leases shortened to 10 days.
The Citizens for Huerfano County, which formed in 2011 to contest a plan by Shell to drill an exploratory well near La Veta, asked the BLM to conduct a hydrological study of the region, where maps suggest groundwater and deep water are connected through vertical dikes that could be impacted by hydraulic fracturing, a technique known as fracking that is used to free oil and gas from the earth.
“This area is one of the most-complex areas geographically and hydrologically. If someone was to drill deep and pump a lot of carcinogenic material, as they do when fracking, that water would not stay in neat, tidy pools. It would migrate, and that’s our biggest concern,” said Jeff Briggs, the president of Citizens for Huerfano County. “They are looking at these things microscopically but not macro. They are not looking at how all these little pieces fit together and how they connect with wilderness and Sand Dunes National Park and the river drainage that supports Huerfano County.”
The BLM in July said it would defer this month’s lease-sale of 11 Huerfano County parcels across 26 square miles, citing the need to consult with the Navajo Nation and noting that the leases could be offered at a later date.
BLM spokesman Hall said the agency’s delay on the Huerfano County leases did not come because they wanted to wait for the new resource-management plan to develop. While resource-management plans are still being reviewed, the agency uses existing plans to guide its oil and leasing programs.
“The notion that we should just suspend something because a resource-management plan is underway, … that would be unfair to prohibit one type of activity while you are preparing an RMP,” Hall said.
Kathleen Sgamma, who is with the Western Energy Alliance, said that “a lot of misinformation” about leasing and development has stirred unwarranted angst in communities that are not used to oil and gas exploration.
“They are susceptible to worst-case scenarios and fear mongering about oil and natural gas,” Sgamma said. “If they don’t understand it, sometimes they just want it to go away.”
Sgamma said it takes years for companies to develop wells on federal land, and lease utilization rates in the West are around 40 percent because of the long process. There were long delays and backups during the Obama administration, with millions of acres previously designated for oil and gas leasing removed from the market. (The BLM in July paid $1.5 million to one company to settle a lawsuit after the agency in 2016 canceled 18 of the company’s leases covering 21,000 acres in the Thompson Divide area above Carbondale.)
“We’ve nominated a lot of these leases as long as six years ago, and we finally have an administration willing to bring those leases up. There is some pent-up demand from several years,” said Sgamma, noting that one-tenth of 1 percent of the surface of public lands is disturbed by oil and gas development.
“Oil and gas have been co-existing with recreation for a long, long time, with hundreds of million of acres set aside for preservation. We are not preventing access to public lands. We look at it as totally symbiotic and complementary,” Sgamma said. “To us, this should not be either/or. Every job is valuable and every use of public lands is welcome. There are plenty of areas across the West that are appropriate for recreation and there are plenty of lands that are appropriate for development.”
Gunnison County’s board of commissioners expressed concern with the BLM’s proposed December lease-sale of parcels in the North Fork Valley, asking the agency to identify economic need for the sale, particularly those involving companies seeking to harvest coalbed methane.
The Gunnison commissioners also asked the agency to consider extending the comment period for the lease sale. The Town of Paonia and Gunnison County asked the BLM to slow the sale. Sen. Michael Bennet joined Hickenlooper and the two municipalities in asking the agency to wait for the resource-management planning process to conclude before pursuing a record lease sale.
“Short review periods mandated by the (new policy) de-emphasizes participation by local governments, the public and the state of Colorado,” Bennet wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to Colorado’s BLM director, Gregory Shoop. “Coloradans expect the opportunity to weigh in on the management of their public lands.”
Delta County’s commissioners — a traditionally friendly group when it comes to energy extraction — provided comments to the BLM lauding parcels near existing coal mining but advising caution on parcels near Paonia Reservoir.
The Delta County board “generally supports exploration and development of energy for local and state economies while protecting clean air, clean water, agriculture, tourism, recreation, and a safe and health community for future generations,” reads the BLM’s collection of 215 comments on the December lease sale.
“And there is no evidence that existing oil and gas development has impacted agriculture or tourism in Delta and Gunnison counties,” the analysis reads. “Based on local experiences, leasing the parcels would not be likely to affect tourism or small-scale farms, including orchards and vineyards, in the North Fork Valley, county government expenditures, or land values.”
The BLM’s preliminary environmental analysis of the proposed lease sale of five parcels totaling 2,831 acres in the North Fork Valley noted that tourism and agriculture have developed alongside mineral extraction for decades.
The BLM in northwest Colorado in 2015 joined colleagues in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota in establishing comprehensive protections for the greater sage grouse. Last year, the agency, directed by Zinke, proposed amendments to the sage grouse conservation plan, with six states launching environmental reviews designed to strengthen collaboration between states and the federal government.
A report from the sage grouse review team in August 2017 promised to find a balance between conservation of sage grouse habitat and “possible plan modifications with local economic growth and job creation in mind.”
Hickenlooper, in his Sept. 11 letter to the BLM’s Shoop, asked that 143 parcels in sage grouse habitat be removed from the December sale until the amendments are in place. Hickenlooper noted that the agency’s new policy, outlined in January, allows state directors to recommend to the Washington office that parcels be removed from lease sales when a plan amendment is pending.
“We explicitly request that you make this recommendation,” Hickenlooper wrote.
Opponents of the record lease-sale note that the rush falls as midterm elections could change the political landscape in Washington, D.C. They point to mistakes the BLM has already made in its haste, including accidentally nominating leases that were in sage grouse habitat and not open for oil and gas development. Hickenlooper pointed out the mistake for the agency, which removed portions of 17 parcels and one entire parcel from the December sale.
“They didn’t even notice that some of the parcels they had already taken off the table in earlier planning. We needed a governor to point this out to the BLM,” said The Wilderness Society’s Culver.
Two resource-management plans for the Royal Gorge and Uncompahgre field offices — which will guide the agency’s management of a combined 1.3 million surface acres and and 4.3 million acres of mineral rights — are expected, after several years of planning, to conclude next spring.
“Why can’t we wait for those to finish?” Culver wondered. “They are rushing along and skipping all their steps. You can rush along, but the laws are not going to go away.”