The Trump administration will hold Wyoming’s final oil and gas lease sale of the year this week, opening up over 280,000 acres of public land to possible development.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will hold the three-day sale online starting Tuesday. All nominated parcels included in the sale fall within habitat that’s home to sage grouse, a point of contention for several conservation groups.
Though the federal agency will not offer parcels falling within core, or priority, sage grouse habitat, it will open up deferred parcels in general sage grouse habitat, according to Courtney Whiteman, a spokeswoman for the BLM’s Wyoming State Office.
The difference between priority and general habitat management areas comes down to how important the land is to the survival of sage grouse populations. Priority habitat is considered to have the highest conservation value, though federal law requires protection of both types of habitats. Sage grouse advocates maintain that carefully managing development on both categories of land remains vital to the bird’s survival.
Spats between industry, regulators and conservation groups over the handling of oil and gas leasing in sage grouse habitat have become a predictable preamble to most federal lease sales. Wyoming is home to the world’s largest sage grouse population, but numbers have been declining.
For years, both local and federal officials have struggled to walk the fine line between preserving the imperiled bird’s limited sagebrush habitat and not infringing on the state’s economic backbone — mineral industries. The battle over the iconic bird has taken center stage yet again in the lead-up to the last oil and gas lease sale of the year.
An unusual year
Energy companies interested in leasing federal land for drilling can typically nominate and then bid on parcels during quarterly lease sales. Once a company secures a lease, it must then obtain permits and often complete environmental reviews before breaking ground.
The bureau usually hosts the competitive lease sales in March, June, September and December. But this year has been different.
The COVID-19 pandemic, federal court battles and abysmal market conditions have upset the usual pace of leasing.
Half of the money collected by the federal government during the quarterly auctions, as well as mineral royalties associated with leases, flow back to the state. But oil and gas lease sales in Wyoming have brought in just $4.7 million from sales so far this year. In 2019, bids brought in roughly $140.9 million.
Part of the slowdown has stemmed from conflicts with sage grouse.
In September, the Wyoming lease sale was significantly curtailed to avoid opening up parcels in sage grouse habitat after a federal court decision chided the Trump administration for failing to prioritize leasing outside the bird’s habitat. The BLM offered only eight parcels covering about 4,000 acres in the third quarter sale and deferred the rest.
But for this month’s sale, the BLM signaled it was ready to lease in general sage grouse habitat again. Of the 262 parcels being offered during this month’s fourth quarter sale, 200 parcels were previously deferred, or withheld, from prior sales due to conflicts over sage grouse habitat.
The resumption of leasing in greater sage grouse areas has local conservation groups worried again.
“While general habitat areas are not considered core habitat, it’s still very important to the bird’s continued survival,” said John Rader, conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “And (BLM is) still required by law to consider developing and leasing outside that habitat first.”
About a dozen conservation groups submitted public comments in response to the BLM’s environmental review of the December parcels, with many decrying the sale’s risk to the sensitive bird and its ecosystem.
Yet the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, a group representing many of the state’s oil and gas operators, defended the BLM’s efforts to protect sage grouse habitat from disturbances. The BLM applies the state’s sage grouse conservation strategy to the federal land it administers.
“Wyoming’s sage grouse core area strategy was designed to balance sage grouse health and economic activities,” Ryan McConnaughey, communications director for the association, said in response to the recent opposition. “Calls to ban drilling activity within core areas go against both the spirit and text of that plan.”
Oil and natural gas drilling in sage grouse core habitat results in minimal surface disturbance, or just 2.8% of core area, according to McConnaughey. (The state-imposed threshold for surface disturbance on suitable greater sage grouse habitat is 5%.)
"To put that in context, a surface disturbance of 18 acres unlocks an entire 640-acre section to drilling while protecting vast swaths of sage grouse habitat," McConnaughey explained.
What’s more, energy production on public land remains critical to Wyoming’s economic health, he said.
“Federal lease sales are the lifeblood of Wyoming’s oil and natural gas industry,” he added. “Wyoming ranks first in natural gas production on public lands and third in oil. Any attempts to shut down production on federal lands would decimate Wyoming’s economy.”
This month’s protests come on the heels of a federal judge concluding the Trump administration had failed to properly prioritize leasing public land outside sage grouse core habitat for energy development during several quarterly lease sales.
In response to the judge’s order, the BLM Wyoming State Office committed to developing a new prioritization strategy for sage grouse. It published the initial framework in it environmental assessment for another upcoming lease sale taking place in March.
To Rader, the conservation advocate, the new strategy falls short.
While the new strategy does outline some concrete steps for prioritizing leasing outside of core sage grouse habitat, the BLM does not have to undertake a rigorous review before authorizing leasing in general sage grouse habitat, according to Rader. What’s more, Wyoming’s strategy is far less thorough than the ones recently implemented by neighboring states, like Montana, he said.
“You can see how poorly the strategy worked out, because not a single parcel in general habitat management area was deferred (for the December sale)," Rader noted. "Every single parcel that was nominated, is being offered.”
The Wyoming Outdoor Council instead has called for a judicious conservation strategy that prioritizes responsible management and remains consistent, regardless of who is in federal office.
The BLM announced last month it will also move ahead in holding next year’s first sale in March, where it will offer 141 parcels covering 244,086 acres of federal land, with many in general and priority sage grouse habitat management areas.
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