The Bureau of Land Management in Colorado has decided to pursue a Master Leasing Plan in Southwest Colorado, which would provide a closer look at future oil and gas development in the region.
“Without question, the majority of people we heard from were in favor of an MLP,” said Gregg Dubit, who served on a BLM advisory committee. “I’m really glad to hear the BLM, in the end, listened to them.”
On Monday, BLM spokesman Jayson Barangan said the Denver office intends to submit a proposal to Washington, D.C., for a Master Leasing Plan, the timing of which is based on resources and funding.
Once submitted, officials in Washington will decide whether to approve a plan that would put future energy development in Montezuma and La Plata counties under the microscope.
“This decision is the result of information we got from the community involvement process,” Barangan said.
For two years, the prospect of the BLM’s Tres Rios Office conducting a Master Leasing Plan has been a hot-button issue, with debate over whether the study would serve as a facilitator for further protection of the environment or a smokescreen to curb the oil and gas industry.
Proponents of the plan say the BLM’s previous 2015 study – a Resource Management Plan – failed to look at the overall impact oil and gas extraction would have on valued resources, such as the escarpment to Mesa Verde National Park and the renowned mountain biking system at Phil’s World, just east of Cortez.
The Master Leasing Plan faced opposition from energy companies that claimed it would place undue hardship on future development, and commissioners in Montezuma County, which relies heavily on property taxes from the industry.
As a result, the BLM set up a local advisory committee of interest groups, tasked with involving the public, as well as drafting a recommendation whether a Master Leasing Plan was warranted.
In February, support for a Master Leasing Plan received near unanimous favor at a public hearing held in Durango. Similar meetings throughout the two-county region, as well as submitted comments, showed similar support, BLM officials said.
But in August, the 15-member advisory committee failed to reach a consensus on whether to recommend a Master Leasing Plan to the BLM, turning down two resolutions focused on governing oil and gas development.
Despite the impasse, Connie Clementson, field manager for the Tres Rios office, said public comment generated at advisory committee meetings led to the decision to go ahead with the Master Leasing Plan.
“We want to be responsive to the community,” Clementson said. “We know some people walked away from those meetings a little discouraged, but they need to know we were all sitting there listening.”
On Monday, backers of the Master Leasing Plan lauded the BLM’s decision.
“We’re very grateful to see that the BLM Tres Rios and state offices have taken into account the massive amount of diverse public support for a Master Leasing Plan for Southwest Colorado,” said Micha Rosenoer, a field manager based in Durango for Conservation Colorado.
The San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Jimbo Buickerood, who also served on the advisory committee, said the study provides an opportunity to support all of the region’s economic drivers, such as agriculture, tourism, and mineral resources, as well as recreational uses like hiking, hunting and biking.
Energy groups, on the other hand, held to long-standing beliefs the push for a Master Leasing Plan is part of the “Keep it in the Ground” movement, and that concerns raised are clearly addressed in the BLM’s previous 2015 plan.
Eric Sanford, a member of the advisory committee and land manager for an oil and gas production company, said it was “shameful” how the BLM wasted hundreds of volunteer hours for a decision that was already made.
“All this is, is a delay mechanism for political convenience,” Sanford said.
He also took issue with the notion that there’s public support for the Master Leasing Plan.
“The public did not want this,” Sanford said. “People that showed up did so at the behest of the organization they belong to that opposes oil and gas development across the board.
“I could have had 500 oil and gas workers … show up at each of those meetings,” he continued. “But this is not supposed to be a popularity contest.”
Montezuma County’s natural resources planning and public lands coordinator James Dietrich, too, stressed the importance of energy development for the county that relies heavily on the industry’s property taxes.
“Natural resource developments of all kinds are still economically very important to small rural communities across the west,” he wrote in an email. “Montezuma County … elected officials truly realize the importance of this income source for their school, their special districts and of course their county budget.”
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt denied that further study into energy development is part of an effort to keep all mineral resources in the ground. Instead, the MLP would provide common-sense analysis of where drilling is appropriate, she said.
“There are areas in Utah and Wyoming that have done this successfully,” Lachelt said. “It’s just a wise approach in determining where oil and gas should be developed.”
The BLM’s Clementson maintained that a Master Leasing Plan is not a redundant process, saying the plan will focus on issues not addressed in the Resource Management Plan.
She added that while the Master Leasing Plan is in process, a moratorium currently in place would continue for all leasing of oil and gas development in the area of concern, the acreage of which is still yet to be determined.