Despite public support for a Master Leasing Plan, a citizens advisory committee is leaning toward recommending to the Bureau of Land Management an alternative mechanism to protect resources from future oil and gas development in La Plata and Montezuma counties.
The Southwest Resource Advisory Committee met Friday in Mancos, and most were against a Master Leasing Plan, though a resolution won’t be finalized until the committee’s next meeting in Gunnison. While divided over whether that type of plan is warranted, committee members agreed additional protections and planning are needed to protect private landowners and the environment from drilling impacts.
The question remains: What is the appropriate tool?
According to the BLM, there are about 46,000 total surface acres – 10,000 in La Plata County, 36,000 in Montezuma County – within the proposed Master Leasing Plan boundaries.
Around 2010, the BLM estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years on federal lands in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County. Fearing future activity would pose risks to wildlife, air and water quality, and valued national attractions such as Mesa Verde National Park, environmentalists and some community members called for a Master Leasing Plan to protect those resources. They argued that the BLM’s Resource Management Plan, which was updated in February 2015, governs land use too broadly; a Master Leasing Plan could tighten restrictions (such as on where wells are placed and how closely to recreational lands) and eliminate loopholes in the Resource Management Plan.
Yet critics say a Master Leasing Plan is merely a ploy to stall oil and gas development, and the Resource Management Plan adequately provides protection for those resources.
For months, the Resource Advisory Committee has debated the merits of a Master Leasing Plan, and on Friday, agreed that a mechanism is needed to fill holes in the Resource Management Plan. Most said that mechanism should not be a Master Leasing Plan.
“I’m not against MLP. In Moab, it made sense,” said Eric Sanford, a committee member and employee in the oil and gas industry. He referred to the process recently undertaken to protect natural resources from extractive resource development in Moab, Utah, where most of the land in question was leasable to oil and gas developers. The opposite is true in La Plata and Montezuma counties, he said. “This would be a misuse of the MLP process.”
Jimbo Buickerood, representing the San Juan Citizens Alliance, contended that a Master Leasing Plan would include interests that the Resource Management Plan doesn’t.
Without a Master Leasing Plan, there are several regulatory layers under the National Environmental Protection Act before development can occur. Montezuma County officials also favor “no surface occupancy” conditions near economic drivers such as Phil’s World mountain bike trails. Whether those processes and stipulations address concerns to the extent of a Master Leasing Plan remains the topic of debate.
Lionel Di Giacomo, an advocate with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, told the committee he was “surprised” that a Master Leasing Plan is characterized as redundant.
“From my understanding, the Resource Management Plan allows exceptions of stipulations under pretty broad discretion without public notification,” he said.
Christi Zeller, executive director of the Energy Council in Durango, sided with most committee members, naming an extensive list of resources protected under it.
“I didn’t hear anything in the MLP that will protect anything any differently than what’s already out there (in the RMP),” she said.
Most members of the public who attended the meeting, paralleling public comments submitted to the BLM, defended the Master Leasing Plan, citing different interests, including the tourism industry and environmental impacts.
Local governing bodies took opposite stances on the issue. While La Plata County supported a Master Leasing Plan, Montezuma County commissioners argued to the state BLM office that the Resource Management Plan will suffice.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said Friday a recommendation against a Master Leasing Plan ignores the will of the public, which showed overwhelming support for pursuing the study.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Lachelt said. “I urge them to reconsider this. I feel like the BLM has bungled this process from day one.”
Commissioner Julie Westendorff did not return a call. Chairman Brad Blake declined to comment.
The BLM state office will ultimately decide whether to pursue the Master Leasing Plan, supposedly sometime this summer.