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PRB Oil Drilling

A rig operates in the vicinity of existing oil wells in May 2017 in the Powder River Basin. Conservationists are taking issue with the "rush" to sell oil and gas leases after the recent government shutdown.

Environmental groups are crying foul that oil and gas lease sales will continue despite lost time during the 35-day partial government shutdown.

Federal officials in Wyoming say they are ready to move forward with two scheduled lease sales — including the first of four auctions that the agency is required to hold every year — having collected and reviewed public comments on whether these acres should be offered to industry.

The first-quarter auction on March 19 and 20 will offer 140 parcels, totaling 148,909 acres of Wyoming land for development, including wildlife habitat that environmental groups argue should not be leased for development.

The agency is deferring six parcels of land that were proposed by companies but that lie in the Red Desert to Hoback migration corridor for mule deer. Two more parcels in the corridor will be partially deferred and all parcels overlapping the corridor carry a lease notice forcing oil and gas companies to consult with state and federal agencies on how to develop in the sensitive area traipsed by the deer.

But for environmental groups, the problem with the sale is one of timing.

“Given the recent government shutdown, one would think the agency might think twice about rushing a lease sale in Wyoming of this magnitude, particularly since the energy industry is already sitting on thousands of unused acres of drilling permits,” Dan Smitherman, Wyoming state manager for The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

There’s been permitting escalation in Wyoming as oil and gas companies jockey for control of future drilling. In many cases the race for permits on land in the state does not translate, or will not translate, to actual production of minerals.

Though the comment period is over, the public can still submit protests of parcels being offered in March over the next 30 days.

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Wyoming’s Bureau of Land Management staff was among those left in limbo in December when Congress reached a stalemate over funding a $5 billion wall proposed by the president for the U.S. border with Mexico. The BLM, which oversees all oil and gas development on federal land in Wyoming, was partially staffed for emergencies. Following pressure from oil and gas groups, the agency was funded in a limited capacity to process industry permits.

Environmental groups seemed to know what was coming amid the shutdown, sending a letter to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to hold off on oil and gas lease sales. The letter cited the patchy access to records and limited time for review, offered when the Bureau of Land Management was offline without funding.

Those groups now argue that the BLM couldn’t have fully reviewed public critiques of proposed land for oil and gas leases, to be sold in the March auction, with just over a week to do the job.

Courtney Whiteman, one of BLM Wyoming’s spokeswomen, defended the agency’s work before, during and after the shutdown.

“Our leasing team proactively completed much of the work to prepare for the March sale before the shutdown and some exempted employees worked during the shutdown to address comments,” she said in an email Thursday.

For the March sale, the agency received 17 distinct comments from individuals or groups. Within those comments, officials identified 119 separate issues raised and in need of a response, Whiteman said.

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The shutdown is not the first time under the Trump administration that BLM staff in Wyoming has been pressed to do its job with less time. The agency is tasked with trying to keep environmental reviews within a one-year timeline.

Cutting through red tape that is perceived as burdensome to the oil and gas industry has been a goal of the Interior Department under the administration. To that end, BLM has been holding larger oil and gas sales each quarter and cut the amount of time for both public comment and protest on sales.

The new approach, coinciding with improved oil prices, paved the way for increased leasing activity in the state. The revenue from federal and state lease sales in 2017 jumped by 800 percent from the previous year. Last year’s income was more modest.

The shortened timeline was in part repudiated by an Idaho judge as part of a much larger suit brought by environmentalists against the Trump administration. The judge ruled that leasing proposed in sage grouse habitat — areas with particular concerns given multi-state and multi-year work to protect that habitat — could not be expedited, as it violated the agency’s obligation to engage with the public.

The BLM pulled that land and offered more time. Much of the sage grouse land will be offered in a special February auction.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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