For some, it’s obvious: Why wouldn’t you meticulously plan the location of a predicted 3,000 new oil and gas wells to protect natural lands like Mesa Verde National Park and Phil’s World mountain bike trails? For others, it’s merely a tactic to delay the inevitable.
A Master Leasing Plan doesn’t sound provocative, but bitter lines have been drawn as a result of the Bureau of Land Management planning the future use of its federal land in Southwest Colorado, 92 percent of which is open to gas and oil development.
Debate now lingers over whether the BLM should engage in such a plan to further analyze when and where new wells should be drilled.
Conservationists and recreationists in support of a master plan say the study will give natural resources and recreational uses the same level of priority as gas and oil development, which the BLM has historically favored.
Energy companies and those dependent on the industry argue the BLM already has protections in place, and the call for additional review is a cheap attempt by those who wish to see fuels remain in the ground.
The BLM falls somewhere vaguely in between.
Leveling the playing field
Around 2010, the Tres Rios BLM office estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years for federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County.
And within the 820,000-acre area of minerals, only 62,000 acres would be closed to drilling.
The plan caught the ire of some community members who felt the boundaries come too close and adversely impact naturally valued lands, including the corridors into Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, around the mountain biking destination Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness study areas.
In February 2015, the BLM released an updated Resource Management Plan, outlining guidelines for land use, including future exploration and development of new well pads in the region.
But environmentalists say the resource plan fell short of keeping oil and gas in check, leaving too many areas of discretion and loopholes for over-development.
Concerned with effects on wildlife migration, cultural resources, water quality and air quality, the groups pressured the BLM to consider a master plan, which could tighten restrictions in the two-county area.
“We’re not going to make the entire area on the map a park,” said Nada Culver, director and senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “The idea is to get more balanced with oil and gas. (A master leasing plan) takes resources like wildlife, recreation, agriculture – and evens the playing field.”
Bringing together interests from across the board, the BLM set up and assigned an advisory committee to draft a recommendation on whether a master leasing plan is warranted. A sub-group of that committee is holding public hearings in Durango and Mancos on Thursday.
But not all are in favor of a second look at resources and interests on BLM lands.
“This is being done for political reasons,” said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, which is representing the energy industry on the sub-committee.
“It’s obvious they oppose oil and gas and don’t want these resources developed in any responsible way.”
The pursuit of a master leasing plan has also faced opposition from Montezuma County commissioners who say the plan makes it more cumbersome for the oil and gas industry, which the county economically relies on, to operate.
“Our rub comes from the conservation community who love to paint local officials as uncaring, inflexible, unwilling to listen, blinded by money and willing to give away all of the farms and ranches in the county to the industry,” Montezuma County commissioners wrote in a letter to the BLM’s Denver office in October.
“We still stand behind our position that the MLP is not warranted in Montezuma County. Because non-participation could disenfranchise the majority of the citizens we represent ... we are willing to consider participating in the community involvement process (with conditions).”
However, master leasing plans are catching on in the West as oil and gas expansion butts up against some of the last wildlands. Since the leasing reform was introduced in 2010, there are already seven public land areas with master plans (three in Colorado), and another eight with pending master plans, which include popular destinations like Dinosaur National Monument and Moab, Utah.
BLM has final say
BLM officials pointed to the $247 million the state of Colorado received in 2015 from royalties for all federal minerals, including oil and gas, as well as the more than 22,900 jobs tied to the industry’s operations on public land.
The BLM Tres Rios Field Office will receive the advisory committee’s recommendation in August, but ultimately, the federal agency has the final say whether it will undertake a master leasing plan project.
“We haven’t taken a stance one way or the other,” said Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios office. “We’re a multiple-use agency, and in my experience with BLM – the people, the employees really try to balance their approach on how we manage public lands we’re responsible for.”
The BLM ceased all gas and oil leasing on the area in question until the matter of a master leasing plan is resolved. Still, the federal agency has 35 previously authorized leases covering about 13,500 acres within the master plan’s boundaries.
Between the 3,740-square-mile area that covers La Plata and Montezuma counties, the most recent data show nearly 6,000 gas wells dot the countryside.
Throughout the mineral-rich San Juan Basin, the total number of drilling operations are hard to pin down, yet some reports reach into the tens of thousands.
And numbers like those make the battle for the landscape of the West worth fighting for, the Wilderness Society’s Nada said.
“This is a new culture,” Nada said. “The BLM has historically left it up to the oil and gas industry to decide when and where they drill.
“We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in.”