A leaked draft of a new priority list from the Bureau of Land Management recently put energy development front and center among the agency’s initiatives.
In Wyoming, where the BLM manages 17.5 million acres of public land, any changes in how the agency permits and leases land for drilling oil and gas, or digging coal, sparks debate between those seeking to do business and those who want to reserve more land for public use and conservation.
The five-point draft from the BLM lists a number of priorities for the agency, like promoting energy independence for the U.S. and developing habitat improvement projects. The majority of the bullet points concern fossil fuel development. They include streamlining the drilling application process, opening new lands for drilling and addressing a “backlog” of industry requests. E&E News obtained a copy of the document and reported on its contents April 10.
A spokeswoman for BLM said the list reflects the multi-use responsibility of the BLM but emphasized that it is not a final draft.
“While these documents are still in draft form, these talking points are being assembled by the team at the BLM to clearly lay out our continued commitment to ensure opportunities for commercial, recreation and conservation activities on BLM-managed lands,” said spokeswoman Megan Crandall in a statement. “Our multiple-use and sustained yield mission for managing public lands on behalf of all Americans supports an all-of-the-above energy plan, shared conservation through tribal, state and local partnerships, public access for recreation and other activities and keeping America’s working public landscapes healthy and productive.”
The apparent energy-first platform reflected in the agency’s talking points has been expected by both industry and environmental advocates since new leadership arrived in Washington.
The new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, formerly a congressman from Montana, has repeatedly expressed his belief that increasing energy development on public lands can be done without harming conservation commitments.
“Let me make one thing clear: The Interior Department is in the energy business,” he said in March, after approving a $22 million coal lease in Utah. “It is my hope that working together he will help identify areas where we can expand responsible mineral development while still conserving habitat and wildlife”
Not everyone shares the secretary’s confidence that uses of public land will be balanced.
“The bullet points for the conservation stewardship section are incredibly minimal,” said Chris Merrill, director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
One priority laid out is to increase volunteerism. Another professes to develop priority habitat plans, which pleased Merrill. There is no specific mention of issues like sage grouse, which has dominated habitat conservation goals on public land in places like Wyoming.
“In a larger sense, the protection of habitat should be a key priority for the foreseeable future,” Merrill said. “When it comes to wildlife, habitat is everything ... not just improvement projects, but protecting the habitat we already have, and it doesn’t seem to be in this document.”
Merrill takes issue with the energy aims, and the attitude that there is an overwhelming backlog of requests to drill.
“The first thing that struck me is that [the talking points] seem to ignore the reality of energy markets,” he said. “The reason, for example, that the price of natural gas plummeted is we have a glut on the market. It’s not as if there is this huge desire on the part of energy companies to be drilling more. They have so many leases that they could be drilling. They are not because of market decisions, not because of anything the BLM is doing.”
Yet the idea of streamlining processes for drilling or for permitting could be viewed as simple “good housekeeping,” said Charles Mason, an economist at the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy.
“I don’t know how you are going to make a compelling case for retaining or reinforcing (bureaucratic) frictions of that sort,” he said of the BLM’s plan to increase efficiency.
From an economic standpoint, however, the list reflects a shortsighted outlook on how to deal with federal mineral resources, he said.
The Trump administration is taking the view that increased leasing and drilling is a way to boost economic activity, he said. Another way to look at it is how increased drilling or mining can impact the supply and demand cycle, he said, echoing the concern that Merrill voiced on overproduction.
The government is a proxy agent handling public assets, and their end goal should be getting as much of a return on federal minerals as possible, Mason said.
“The question for me becomes, are we doing the right thing in facilitating the acquisition of maximum dollars?” he asked. “Do we make that happen by dumping a lot of that stuff on the market at the same time?”
Yet, there are some in Wyoming waiting for an open door from federal regulators, and the talking points speak directly to their hopes. Many in industry believe federal agencies had marching orders from the Obama administration to inhibit energy expansion by increasing red tape.
The good housekeeping, described by Mason, the UW economist, would potentially decrease the time it takes to process expressions of intent, the first step operators make when scoping federal land for potential drilling.
It’s imperative to streamline that process in Wyoming, said Steve Degenfelder of Casper-based Kirkwood Resources.
“It currently takes 1.5 years, BLM will say 56 weeks minimum, from receipt of the EOI to those lands being offered at an auction,” he said in an email. “The time period should be less than 3 months. Conducting such a thorough analysis on leases just being offered for sale has resulted, as the industry predicted, [in] a scheme to reduce the number of acres being offered for sale.”
By the time the paperwork is filed, some operators have moved on and given up on the tracts altogether, eliminating that potential state and federal revenue, Degenfelder added.
Applications for permits to drill are similarly backlogged, while federal fees have skyrocketed, he said.
The BLM’s first lease sale in 2017, one of four that take place per year, sold more than half the amount of acreage sold in all of 2015. Oil and gas operators were ecstatic at what they hope is a new direction for federal leasing in Wyoming.
If the trend is toward development, it’s a directional change that industry has been waiting for.
Thought the U.S. experienced a historic drilling boom under Obama, including on federal land, the on-the-ground experience in the last eight years has been one of frustration for people like Degenfelder.
Now, BLM’s steps are being closely watched by competing interests, with both sides concerned about whose political influence will be the strongest.
“My biggest fear is that the more environmentally acceptable points of the agenda will be followed first, and those dealing with oil, gas and coal will take a back seat,” said Degenfelder.
Land advocates like Merrill fear the reverse.
“There is a need to strike a balance and that means allowing for development in some places where it make sense and not allowing for it in other places where the other values are so important that they should be protected,” he said.
If the leaked draft is a fair sign of where the public land management agency’s is going in the next four years, then a friendlier environment for oil, gas and coal developers may be at hand. The impact on environmental agendas, however, is less clear.