In February, environmental groups celebrated a U.S. District Court ruling that required the Bureau of Land Management to release the identities of companies that nominated 30,000 acres of public lands in Colorado’s North Fork Valley for natural-gas and oil leasing.
They called the ruling a victory for transparency in the process of leasing public lands for energy development.
“Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate,” Western Environmental Law Center’s Kyle Tisdel, the lead attorney in the case, said in a news release after the ruling.
But three months later, the BLM-wide policy shift that the groups expected from the ruling hasn’t occurred. The agency released the names of nominators, or expressions of interest submitters, of the North Fork Valley acreage, but it has delayed fulfilling similar public-records requests around the state.
Three requests, including one from The Durango Herald, that asked for the names of companies who nominated more than 12,000 parcels in Southwest Colorado for natural-gas and oil leasing have yet to receive final responses.
“The judge’s decision didn’t immediately change the BLM’s policy regarding expressions of interest,” said Steven Hall, spokesman for Colorado’s BLM office.
The agency is still determining whether any other parts of the Freedom of Information Act would require the BLM to withhold the identities of these expressions of interest submitters, Hall said.
Debbie Suehr, BLM’s Colorado FOIA officer who is dealing with the Southwest Colorado requests, said she is still notifying companies that their information has been requested, and the BLM is giving them the opportunity to object to the release of that information. The BLM will then determine if the nominating firm’s reasons are valid or if the information should be released anyway, Suehr said.
Company responses are due back Friday, but Suehr said she had no idea how the process will unfold from there. Hall said the BLM doesn’t have a time frame of when it will respond to the FOIA requests.
He indicated a final decision regarding agency-wide policy changes could take a while.
“It’s probably not as much of a priority as some other issues facing the Bureau of Land Management because this is a relatively minor complaint coming from a small group of people,” Hall said. “This isn’t a widespread issue of public concern. It is primarily press that are concerned about oil and gas leasing and activists that are opposed to oil and gas leasing.”
Since 2003, the BLM’s Colorado office has received seven requests for the identities of those who nominated BLM-owned parcels for gas-and-oil lease sale. Six of those have been received in the last two years.
The BLM’s policy that the identities of expressions-of-interest submitters are exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure requirements dates back to 1995.
The agency currently releases nominators names two days after the lease sale.
The policy was meant to prevent the potential for industry collusion to downbid lease parcels and to protect companies who put research efforts into determining the viability of public lands for energy development, BLM spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo said.
Delta County-based nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Community brought a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management in 2012 saying the policy violated the Freedom of Information Act.
In February, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled in favor of Citizens for a Healthy Community. Not releasing nominators’ names stifles competition and went against the purpose of a public-sale process, the ruling said.
“Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals,” Matsch wrote. “Moreover, the identity of the submitter may be relevant to the plaintiff and others who may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale.”
Pressing back against BLM
The BLM’s delays in releasing the names of other expressions-of-interest submitters have spurred 29 nonprofit groups across the nation, including the San Juan Citizens Alliance, to sign a letter pressing the agency to revise its policy of withholding nominators names.
“The identity of the (expressions of interest) submitters does not fall within any exemption under FOIA, and, importantly, even if it did, BLM could and should still make this information publicly available to ensure that the processes surrounding public resources are open and allow for informed public participation,” the letter said.
The lawsuit and the judge’s ruling set an important precedent for nonprofits working on issues of energy development, said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians.
“It brings a new sense of opportunity and awareness that it is probably a big deal to get this information,” he said. “This proved to be a really good issue to raise.”