Deferred leases

At the 11th hour, the Bureau of Land Management has deferred leasing more than 12,000 acres of land for natural-gas and oil development in Southwest Colorado, and in doing so has appropriately heeded a number of significant concerns about how the agency handled the proposed leases. The reasons given, though, suggest that the BLM may have missed the larger points those concerns raised.

The leases in question are divided among 12 parcels in La Plata, Archuleta, San Miguel and Montezuma counties and were given the green flag based on environmental assessments that were tiered to a resource management plan that is decades old. The BLM has for several years been drafting a new plan, and that is the appropriate document to base decisions on how the land in the Tres Rios District is managed.

Leasing any acreage for gas and oil production in advance of that plan is premature, and a previous deferral issued when the local BLM office was under joint management with the U.S. Forest Service reflected that common-sense position. The BLM about-faced that stance when it offered the land for lease in August, and numerous entities, including the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners, rightly called foul. The BLM decided last week to defer the leases, but did not commit to waiting for the new resource management plan.

The agency based its decision on a need for more time to respond to protests to the lease offerings, as well as to educate newly elected county officials about the leasing process. As Connie Clementson, the field manager of the Tres Rios Field Office said, “I want to have time to talk with the new commissioners and let them know how the process works.” That is fine, but concerns about the manner in which the leases were offered and analyzed will not be alleviated through such an education effort. Instead, the BLM should respond to the heart of the matter:

The leases should be analyzed according to a finalized resource-management plan. That finalization takes place in a public process, as should the discussion around any leases being offered. Clementson’s assurances to county commissioners that the leases are being considered in accordance with the new plan are simply not enough. There must be documented accountability of such claims.

It may well be that the land in question is completely appropriate for gas-and-oil development – that is not the issue. What is at stake is the manner in which those questions are being considered. A thorough public process must be the standard for such matters, and these parcels did not receive that vetting. That the process was further muddied by the moving target of a management plan update makes the deferral all the more appropriate, though the BLM does not appear to recognize that aspect of the debate. Having a conversation about “how the process works” is not enough. The process is the problem, not lawmakers’ awareness of it.

Regardless, in issuing the deferrals, the BLM has an opportunity to fix those inadequacies and consider the leases according to the most current management practices and with the most comprehensive public input available. The agency should set that standard for itself.

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