BLM Utah Lease Sales Should Move Forward, Says Local Official
Efforts to derail a planned lease sale for oil and gas development on federal lands in southeast Utah has earned the ire of one local official who argues, instead, that his county should be reopened to development in the midst of COVID-19.
Bruce Adams, San Juan County Commissioner, said that leasing needs to resume sooner rather than later due to ongoing economic concerns that first emerged years before, when the previous administration’s rulemakings slowed development. Now, the county faces additional pressures due to the broader economic downturn following COVID-19 closures and the erosion of tourist dollars that usually flow into his county and nearby Moab, Utah due to the presence of multiple national parks and monuments that fill each year with hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The leasing of Bureau of Land Management lands follows the Obama administration’s Moab Master Leasing Plan (MLP) released in December 2016. More than 600 parcels have been nominated for leasing interest in 2020, Bloomberg reported.
Adams told Western Wire that the 2016 MLP was forced upon the county in 2016, “and completely shut us down.”
Some of those parcels are located near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. But the proposed parcels are all located well outside the boundaries of the national parks and other federal lands, with most miles away from park lands.
And these parcels aren’t newly designated for lease availability—they were included as part of a publicly-vetted plan released under the previous administration at the end of 2016.
San Juan County, located in southeast Utah, encompasses nearly 8,000 square miles, and is the state’s largest county by area. The county covers most of Canyonlands National Park, and contains portions of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and several national monuments.
“We’ve had no significant drilling since that happened,” Adams said of the MLP. The overall effect, he said, was to shut down the county’s revenue streams that have been in place for decades that also take into account the impact on the local environment.
“It’s just devastating. Most of our budget comes from extraction. We’ve dealt with up-and-down cycles but this MLP has us . . . we can’t do anything,” Adams said.
“It’s killing us,” he added.
The sixteen-year veteran county commissioner expressed his displeasure at the efforts exerted by national groups flooding into southeastern Utah to organize and oppose efforts to follow the MLP’s lease sale designations or to oppose the reduction in size of Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2017.
“I’ll just be blunt. I can’t stand them,” Adams said.
Adams said he and others that support resource development have tried to voice their concerns to Bernhardt and BLM Acting Director William Perry Pendley.
“My speech would be this. Here we have an Obama administration edict that has killed a local economy because Obama was trying to reward his environmental buddies,” Adams said.
“Let’s reopen the MLP and examine the alternatives. Let’s go back to work,” he concluded.
Groups like the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the Wilderness Society, and other anti-development groups pushed the MLP nearly four years ago but are now complaining that the Trump administration is following the outlines of that plan and leasing parcels in designated areas.
“We’ve seen very little development over the past four or five years. That’s going to continue with the low prices,” said Landon Newell, staff attorney for SUWA. But new leasing “makes it harder for these areas to get protected.”
The parcels in Grand and San Juan counties are estimated to contain between 110,000 and 150,000 acres when BLM releases the totally acreage this week to be made available in the September lease sale.
Groups like Sierra Club Utah have called for delays in the timing of the BLM lease sales for June and September, due to COVID-19 concerns. They argue that the public is not able to properly make use of the comment period to respond to BLM and other agencies.
“Their lives have truly been upended,” said Carly Ferro, director of Utah chapter. “They are struggling and grappling with this new somewhat normal, and how to provide for themselves and their families. People may not be able to have the space to provide the concerns that they have on these particular decisions.”
Along with SUWA, the Southwest Region for National Parks Conservation association, and the Center for Biological Diversity, the group submitted a letter to BLM and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt calling for the suspension of the public comment periods and other agency activities.
“We just encourage state agencies to the federal government to really consider what the democratic processes mean for people,” Ferro added. “So taking a step back in how we engage in decision making that could have long term negative impacts on communities and environments.”
As Western Wire reported in March, BLM pledged to continue to conduct lease sales amid COVID-19, with oil and gas designated parcels in New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming proceeding despite similar calls to halt sales because of public participation concerns and even falling commodity prices yielding lower lease sale bids.