Op-Ed: We can reduce lease protests

From Op Ed: “Wyo Outdoor Council has reduced lease protests”
Originally published in the Casper Star-Tribune
Sunday, August 22, 2010

By Bruce Pendery






ON AUG. 5, THE CASPER STAR-TRIBUNE editorial board urged conservationists to reduce the number of protests of Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale offerings.

The editorial argued that due to the greater level of environmental oversight being shown by the Obama administration “it’s no longer necessary for environmentalists to try to block most projects.”

The editorial acknowledged that under the Bush administration there was a furious rush to open most public lands to oil and gas development, and that it was “difficult to criticize” the number of lease sale protests being filed at the time.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council and other entities — including the state of Wyoming in some cases — were indeed protesting many of the lease parcels being offered then. Many were in Wyoming’s beloved places, such as the Red Desert’s Jack Morrow Hills and Adobe Town, places we in Wyoming care deeply about.

But we think it’s important to note that since February 2009, the Outdoor Council has scaled back its protests. On average we have protested only 13 parcels in each of the eight lease sales held since February 2009 (there have been an average of 74 lease parcels offered in each sale).

The change in our approach is due to the fact that our thinking about lease protests has evolved. We believe we can accomplish more by being focused, targeted, and consistent in our challenges.

Nearly all of the parcels we’ve challenged in the last year-and-a-half have been in what the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s members have identified as “heritage landscapes.” These are unique and irreplaceable areas such as the Jack Morrow Hills, Adobe Town, and the Beartooth Front — iconic landscapes that many Wyoming residents treasure and would like to see protected.

We are not filing lease protests in a wholesale, thoughtless manner. By identifying heritage landscapes and critical wildlife areas one of the things we are trying to do is provide the BLM with more certainty about where we will and won’t challenge oil and gas leasing.

That said, we recognize that one group or another is protesting many, even most, parcels these days. What this reflects, in part, is the broad array of people who are concerned about the public lands and the broad array of resources that are found on these landscapes.

It is impossible — and unfair — to lump all these groups together as “environmentalists.” For example, in the just-completed August lease sale 11 protests were filed by a variety of entities including historical groups, hunting and fishing groups, mainstream environmentalists, bird lovers, and several individuals. This diversity of interests cannot be fairly or accurately characterized as some sort of environmentalist cabal whose plan is to delay oil and gas development.

What this broad array of protests tells us is that the BLM must become more thoughtful regarding which lease parcels it offers for sale. Critical sage grouse habitats, iconic places, and important cultural and historical areas should not be offered for sale. Most people in Wyoming agree with this approach. The editorial board seemed to recognize that if the BLM took this approach it would probably reduce the number of protests, and we appreciate that.

Fortunately the oil and gas leasing reform effort recently developed by the Department of the Interior promises to create a greater level of forethought before lease parcels are put on the auction block. We urge the BLM to actively implement this new guidance.

Until then the BLM should carefully review the protests that are already in place, most dating back to the previous administration. A considerable number of the offered parcels should be deferred from sale due to legitimate environmental, recreational, historical, and cultural concerns.

The BLM itself apparently recognizes this, as evidenced by its recent decision regarding the June 2008 lease sale where it deferred 47 parcels from leasing due to recognized environmental concerns that had been raised in protests.

When parcels are withdrawn from sale following a careful review by the agency in response to a protest this does not represent delay or obstructionism. It instead reflects the fact that sometimes, in some areas, non-mineral values — such as abundant wildlife and hunting and fishing opportunities — are greater than potential mineral values.

The BLM’s new oil and gas leasing guidance recognizes this, and thus, once implemented, should be an important step toward ensuring that only appropriate parcels are offered for lease sale. Therefore, we should indeed be able to reduce the number of lease protests that are filed.

Bruce Pendery is program director and staff attorney with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Lander.

Contact: Bruce Pendery, program director, Wyoming Outdoor Council, bruce@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org

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