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Feds will no longer prioritize oil and gas leasing outside of imperiled bird habitat

There was a time when Wyoming’s various industries gathered in meeting halls and hotels across Wyoming to talk about the imperiled sage grouse with environmental groups and state and federal biologists and land managers. Industry was often defensive and conversations were heated, as different groups argued over what areas of Wyoming’s sage grouse habitat would be protected from developments like oil and gas drilling, mining or grazing.

But a changing stance of the federal government in regard to managing the bird that edged close to the precipice of an endangered species listing has industry becalmed these days and conservationists reaching a breaking point.

Reactions to the latest sage grouse adjustment have been no different. The Interior Department published a notice of intent Friday to potentially change the more than 90 management plans concerning the bird across its 11-state habitat.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management instructed its field office Thursday that they did not have to prioritize leasing for oil and gas outside of the birds habitat.

The new instructions flip earlier guidelines that said leasing for development should be considered outside of key bird areas first. The news follows a call for public comment in October on the management plans and a sage grouse program review by the Interior Department in late summer that caused controversy among conservationists in the West.

The instructions also update guidelines for grazing, habitat goals and triggers that warn of a damaged habitat. They will determine on the ground decisions by local Bureau of Land Management offices for how to apply federal policy, until those policies face potential revisions in the coming year.

Some in Wyoming say the change brings federal rules in line with the state, which allow leasing, while discouraging development in core areas.

Others say the instructions contradict the Bureau of Land Management’s policies and see a steady erosion in regard to sage grouse protections. Further down this road is another endangered species listing that will risk Wyoming’s economy, particularly its oil and gas sector, they say.

After 14 years working in Wyoming to keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list, Brian Rutledge, policy adviser for the Audubon Society, said he is wondering how far things will go before he changes his stance.

“If they push [dramatic changes], we’ll work for it to be listed,” he said. “And I will do everything I can to shut them down.”

Rutledge is a member of Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team.

The sage grouse strategy is simple at heart, he said. They took the places where the birds were doing best and protected those areas.

Of the whole sage grouse range, that only added up to a little more than 20 percent of heavily protected habitat, Rutledge said.

Those conserved areas will only face more disturbance and damage if leasing inside and outside core is treated the same, he said. While the rules that govern actual development of those leases are only effective if they are enforced.

In his view, the Bureau of Land Management has already reduced its protections in practice since the Trump administration began its campaign to reduce regulations that hamper energy development.

The Audubon Society has expressed this sentiment throughout lease auctions in Wyoming this year, when BLM allowed leasing in areas that conservationists said should not be open to oil and gas development according to the federal plans.

Nada Culver, senior director of policy and planning at The Wilderness Society, said the instructions are unsurprising, but disappointing.

They send a mixed message to federal agents, she said, because they are giving guidance in direct opposition to federal management plans regarding the grouse.

“The plans are really clear,” she said. “The plans say we are prioritizing to avoid damage and to drive leasing and drilling outside of habitat.”

In a statement Friday, Brian Steed, BLM’s Deputy Director for Programs and Policy, said the changes released last week were a response to state requests.

“They were developed from the ground up with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity,” he said.

Bob Budd, the sage grouse chairman, has consistently said conservationists’ fears are overblown.

Leasing in core areas is not the problem, he said. Wyoming has done it for years. As long as development and drilling activities are regulated within habitat, the bird’s protections still stand, he said.

The restrictions on drilling in core areas are what incentivizes development outside of crucial habitat, said Paul Ulrich, of Jonah Energy, an industry representative on the state’s sage grouse team.

It’s an about face from the federal government’s earlier guidance, but it is actually more in line with the Wyoming strategy, he said.

The change in the instructions is exactly what Wyoming has asked: make the federal plans consistent with state’s, Ulrich said.

If the Interior Department ever fundamentally veered from Wyoming’s plan, he said he would balk at that idea too, but that’s not happening here.

Ulrich doesn’t believe the changes happening today will damage the partnerships between industry and conservationists in Wyoming.

“It’s crucial that we keep that coalition,” he said. “It would be devastating (to lose).”

Budd, the sage grouse chairman, has consistently said the Interior Department’s approach to the grouse will not be the shake out conservationists fear.

“It’s frustrating, and I know there are people who are looking at it with a very jaded view, just as there were people who looked at the previous administration with a jaded view,” Budd said.

But he argued that Wyoming’s way of approaching disagreements hasn’t changed, and the state’s objective hasn’t changed: balance the state’s economy with the bird’s preservation.

“We do that by protecting in core (habitat),” he said. “These (BLM instructions) don’t change that.”

As legislative session looms, future of education funding lies in recalibration

As the Wyoming legislative session draws near, its arguably most pressing issue remains suspended in the air.

For the second straight year, the 90-person Legislature will work to solve an education funding deficit that tops $300 million a biennium. But this year is different: Not only is it a budget session that will likely last just 20 business days, but the body will also have new information to consider as it ponders how to cut costs, maintain quality education and keep the state out of court.

The new data will come from a process known as recalibration, a top-down review of the state’s education system. The study was scheduled to take place in 2020, but the legislature decided to trigger it early due to the funding crisis. The study will look at everything from the state’s educational offerings to the dollars spent to fund those programs.

“I think education is going to be one of the big topics because of the budget and recalibration over the interim,” said Kathy Vetter, the president of the Wyoming Education Association. “Is there going to be an increase in taxes? And if so, what kind?”

The possibility of raising taxes is probably the most controversial question surrounding the education deficit. While House Speaker Steve Harshman has advocated a balanced approach that includes conditional tax increases, Senate President Eli Bebout — and many others in the senate — are firmly against it.

Indeed, in light of a strong Consensus Revenue Estimate Group report released in October, Sen. Bill Landen — a Casper Republican and relative moderate on education — said he thought taxes were likely off the table.

Recalibration is also potentially legally dicey. First, the process defines what an adequate and equitable education is for every child in Wyoming. Then it determines how much it costs to deliver that education, with little regard to the state’s economic realities. Essentially, it cannot be used to slash budgets. There’s potential, then, that the report could recommend spending more money on education than the state is currently.

For months, educators have suggested that recalibration is a backdoor attempt to cut education. Harshman warned last spring that the process wouldn’t bring the reductions needed to solve the deficit.

“In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” the speaker said in April. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.”

Still, some lawmakers — notably Bebout and Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican — have charged that Wyoming students’ academic performances are sub par for the amount of money spent. Although they’ve stopped short of saying recalibration must be used to address what they view as a discrepancy, they continually bring it up.

Now, as the Legislature heads into the session, much rests on the findings of the recalibration consultants and the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration’s response to it. Last week, the consultants released their draft report, which largely included tweaks of the current funding model.

Notably missing was a dollar amount. That’s a crucial piece of this effort: Will the suggestions cost more or less, and how significant will the battle be between legislators and educators over that result?

Those numbers will be available on Jan. 12, officials have said, 11 days before the committee meets for a final time before the session begins on Feb. 12.

It’s entirely possible that the committee disregards what the consultants bring forward. They may say, as they did during the 2015 recalibration, that the current model is acceptable. Sen. Chris Rothfuss said he was 50/50 on whether that would happen. Sweetwater County School District No. 2 Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo said she expected them to drop the recommendations.

In that case, legislators will likely pick apart pieces of the current model to find savings. Indeed, they’ve already started: The Joint Education Committee approved a bill that would cut more than $16 million from schools. Increasing class sizes — which can have a significant effect on districts’ funding — has been a favorite of some lawmakers.

But educators warn that opening up the model and doing piecemeal revisions can have a reverberating effect. For instance, hiking up class sizes will almost certainly cost all 48 districts money. That, in turn, will likely mean lower salaries for teachers. Will educators come to Wyoming for less pay?

In the end, much depends on recalibration. If the consultants return a report that shows cuts, the question will be if it’s equitable and adequate and whether the whole committee accepts it. If they return recommendations that show no savings or an increase in funding, will the committee approve it?

Hovering above all of this is the potential for litigation. One vocal educator told the Star-Tribune last spring that three districts were prepared to file lawsuits. Four of the five largest districts in the state — excluding Natrona County — passed resolutions to allow them to sue the state should they feel cuts have gone too far.

But lawmakers have largely not been cowed by the threat of a lawsuit, and as the months have gone by, the possibility seems to have fallen. But a legislative session with heavy cuts could change that.

“Obviously some (educators) are saying, ‘If we don’t like what we get, we’ll sue you,’” Bebout said. “Well, sue us.”

2017 marked the undoing of environmental regulations that burden Wyoming industries

With a promise of regulatory rollback still ringing in the air, the new administration and a conservative-led congress started 2017 making an attempt to fulfill campaign promises.

The push has largely been applauded by Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries, which had long argued against the Obama era of increasing limits on the energy industries via environmental regulations. Advocates for the environment in the state, meanwhile, began a steady resistance to the new direction from D.C.

By early spring, Congress had axed a number of Obama’s late additions to the regulatory framework, though it failed to push through one of the most contentious — a rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas development.

Strongly supported by the environmental side, the Bureau of Land Management rule made it through the Congressional house cleaning. Industry has continued to seek relief from the rule, however, and the Interior Department has repeatedly tried to comply.

It was finally successful staving off compliance on key provisions of the rule in October.

Wyoming oil and gas operators pleased by federal walk back on methane rule

Natural gas is frequently a by-product of oil production, and if there are no gas pipelines in an oil field, operators will burn that gas off. It usually comes out in a rush at the beginning of production and rapidly tapers off. And it’s a practice that has been a sticking point for environmentalists, and the subject of multiple regulations from Wyoming and the feds.

Environmental groups have sued over the Interior’s decision.

While Congress has gone after specific rules, the Interior Department and other agencies have taken a broader approach.

Mandated by the Trump Administration to review regulations that are overly burdensome to energy development, agencies have been opening up rules to changes throughout the year.

Perhaps the most expected, but consequential for Wyoming, was the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to take steps rolling back the Clean Power Plan.

The plan is currently in limbo in the courts as the EPA seeks to review, rewrite or abolish the plan limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Most agree that the EPA is under a legal obligation to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions that have been found hazardous to human health by the EPA and the courts.

In mid-December, the agency kicked off a 60-day comment period soliciting feedback on what a replacement rule would look like and how it would balance its legal obligations with state and industry flexibility.

The moratorium on new coal leases also bit the dust in 2017, but few expect a positive impact on the Wyoming coal sector as a result.

The administration has been quite successful in repealing or delaying environmental rules from the last eight years. Industry is hopeful, and environmental groups are documenting their losses.

There remains a degree of uncertainty over what the regulatory landscape will look like in the coming years, what regulation repeals will be held up in the courts and what the long-term impacts on energy and the environment in the Cowboy State will be.