The Biden administration on Tuesday set an end date for its pause on federal oil and gas leasing. The first onshore lease sale since December will be held by early 2022.
With nearly half of the state’s land owned by the federal government, Wyoming tops the potential lease count. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering 459 parcels of Wyoming land, totaling more than 568,000 acres, or 887 square miles, for the upcoming lease sale.
Several hundred additional parcels, spanning tens of thousands of acres, could become available in surrounding states, including 119 in Colorado, 22 in North Dakota, 18 in Montana, 10 in Nevada and six each in Utah, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
All of the nominated leases were originally recommended for the canceled March and June lease sales. Though they underwent prior analysis under the Trump administration, they are still subject to a 30-day scoping period and subsequent environmental reviews at the BLM’s discretion.
The announcement comes more than two months after a federal judge in Louisiana ruled that the administration’s indefinite freeze on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands was an overreach of executive power, and ordered the Department of the Interior to resume quarterly lease sales in accordance with the Mineral Leasing Act.
“We are encouraged by the fact that the BLM is complying with the federal judiciary ruling, and are just hopeful that we’ll continue to see progress moving forward with the oil and gas leasing program,” said Ryan McConnaughey, communications director for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
The Petroleum Association is part of an ongoing lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming that aims to force the BLM to resume lease sales more quickly and hold canceled sales retroactively to make up for lost state revenue. Wyoming’s last lease sale, in December 2020, netted close to $7 million from bids on 181 parcels of land.
In 2019, before demand for oil cratered, the BLM nominated 719 Wyoming parcels, ultimately leasing 114 in March, 151 in June, 175 in September and 123 in December and generating nearly $53 million in revenue.
Nationally, the BLM issued a total of 902 new leases in 2017, 1,333 in 2018 and 1,841 in 2019. In 2020, with drilling operations and lease sale logistics both interrupted by the pandemic, that total fell to 899.
President Joe Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order suspending leasing was intended to give the Department of the Interior time to review the program in response to climate change and other environmental concerns. But an interim report on potential modifications, expected in June, has yet to be released, drawing criticism from climate, conservation and industry groups alike.
“Wyomingites hold two things close to our hearts: common sense and public lands,” Josh Coursey, co-founder of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, a mule deer conservation group, said in a statement. “Moving forward with oil and gas lease sales on federal lands in Wyoming without fixing the broken status quo goes against both.”
Now, the Biden administration is continuing its review of the oil and gas leasing program — and beginning a separate review of the coal leasing program — while complying with the order to resume leasing, even as it challenges the Louisiana judge’s order.
“It’s in an awkward place,” said Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation and environmental advocacy group.
While the preliminary injunction required the BLM to make new leases available for drilling, it didn’t specify how many. Industry groups have cautioned for months that the agency could use that discretion to offer far fewer leases than in previous years.
Analysis of climate impacts during the environmental review could have a significant impact on how many parcels are offered for sale, McKinnon said.
“There are real impacts happening right now in our country, as a result of greenhouse gas pollution that these leases will commit if approved,” McKinnon said. “Hurricanes flooding New Orleans, fires right now burning through Lake Tahoe, the Colorado River running dry. These are all things that greenhouse gas pollution from our public lands contributes to, and it’s not in the public interest to continue to harm ourselves.”
The final number of available leases will not become known until the BLM completes its review of nominated parcels and issues a notice of competitive lease sale later this year.