La Plata County residents are no strangers to gas and oil development in their backyards. Drill rigs, well heads, compressor stations and service trucks have become increasingly prevalent features of life in the San Juan Basin. Lawmakers and residents alike are correspondingly savvy about such things as split estates, well spacing, methane seeps and lease sales. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Land Management took landowners by surprise when it announced plans to sell mineral leases on 16,400 acres in southwestern La Plata County - an area new to gas and oil development.
Lease sales are triggered when an entity expresses interest in extracting minerals from beneath public lands, at which point the managing agency must consider various factors, including environmental issues, before putting the parcels on the auction block. Notifying - and including - neighbors of the impending action also is part of the process. In the case of the Dryside, however, landowners as well as La Plata County commissioners were taken by surprise when the pending sale, scheduled for Feb. 12, was announced. In response, the BLM rightly has decided to delay the sale.
Though the lease sale considers only development on public lands, it is reasonable for landowners to expect an explanation of what the drilling would likely mean for their neighborhoods - or even their property. Because the leases would set the stage for activity not previously present in the area, the BLM would be wise to craft a thorough and inclusive process that considers the long-term impacts of drilling on the area. The La Plata County commissioners and U.S. Rep. John Salazar apparently shared that sentiment and expressed concern about the pace of the lease sale as scheduled.
In delaying the sale until at least May 14, as Salazar requested, the BLM can address landowners' concerns. But part of that process should include a revisiting of the environmental analysis that is governing the agency's decision on leasing. The environmental im-pacts of drilling in the area were considered most recently in 1990, when the BLM amended its 1985 management plan. There has been much new - and different - data added to the knowledge base of drilling-related environmental impacts since 1990 that should be considered when evaluating whether drilling is appropriate for the area, primarily air-quality impacts.
As drilling has increased throughout the region - both in raw numbers and density - air quality has become a growing concern that will be further affected by drilling in the western part of La Plata County. That and any other potential environmental impacts deserve current and full consideration when introducing drilling into an area previously untouched by such activity. Delaying the lease sale until May or beyond gives the BLM time to begin this process.
The multilevel debate and restructuring of drilling rules at the county and state levels that has taken place during the last 18 months should - and apparently did - signal the BLM that new drilling plans need to be made in the most comprehensive and inclusive way possible. The agency's decision to delay the sale of mineral leases in western La Plata County opens the door to such a process. The agency would be wise to follow that decision with action that informs, includes and considers all stakeholders.