Interior Issues Report on Drilling Near National Parks in Utah

An Interior Department review of oil and gas leases in Utah recommends that one lease near Dinosaur National Monument be deferred, and that some near Arches and Canyonlands national parks be removed from leasing. NPS photo of Dinosaur's twisted geology.

A review of how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management handled energy leases near national parks in Utah shows some areas where the system broke down and carries recommendations for, at a minimum, review of previous leasing decisions. Some tracts, the report said, should be removed from leasing.

A series of leases issued in the waning days of the Bush administration nearly a year ago was criticized for the proximity of some leases to Canyonlands or Arches national parks, or Dinosaur National Monument or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Early in February, just weeks after he had been confirmed as Interior secretary, Ken Salazar put a hold on the leases. Secretary Salazar said the $6 million worth of leases in question needed a more thorough environmental review to determine whether their development would imperil Arches and Canyonlands national parks or Dinosaur National Monument.

"In the last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases near some of our nation's most precious landscapes in Utah," Secretary Salazar told reporters during a conference call in February. "We will take time and a fresh look at these 77 parcels to see if they are appropriate for oil and gas development."

On Thursday the department released a report (attached) that reviewed the 77 leases. In that document Interior officials pointed to a lack of interagency communications and called for "increasing the level of coordination and collaboration in dealing with oil and gas leasing and development, both at the Federal level and the state level; studying the use of interdisciplinary field reviews for all proposed lease sales; and improving interdisciplinary participation in identifying lease parcels to be offered."

One lease that had been approved was almost entirely within the canyon cut by the Colorado River east of Arches National Park, according to the findings.

According to a release from the Interior Department, the "interdisciplinary team recommended leasing 17 of the parcels, deferring 52 parcels, and withdrawing 8 parcels. Deferral means that the parcels may not be leased until necessary corrections are made to the associated leasing documents, or until conditions are such that leasing would assist in the orderly development of the oil and gas resource. Deferral could also mean removal of the parcels from leasing. The recommendation to remove 8 parcels from leasing was the direct result of field reviews that found that leasing was inappropriate due to critical resource values and /or the apparent lack of net benefit to be gained from leasing."

Concerning the national park units, the report said:

* That a 330-acre lease west of Dinosaur National Monument should be deferred from leasing.

The northeast half mile of the Federal surface portion is contiguous with Dinosaur National Monument’s recommended wilderness; a portion of the lease is within the proposed “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act”; the BLM previously found none of the lease to have wilderness characteristics. ... The Team recommends that the BLM and NPS reevaluate the merits of offering the parcel near the park for lease. If a lease is to be offered, the Team recommends the addition of a lease notice identifying the need for viewshed and soundscape analysis in relation to Dinosaur NM. The lease parcel could be reconfigured to allow the immediate leasing of the western parcel involving only split estate without further analysis.

* That a dozen leases covering nearly 25,000 acres west of Arches National Park be deferred from leasing.

The Review Team looked at 12 leases totaling approximately 24,685 acres; the 12 leases are in a total of 18 pieces. Managed by the Moab Field Office, the leases are in two sub-groups. The main sub-group is immediately west on US-191; the closest leases are approximately three miles from the western boundary of Arches National Park. These leases are within the Labyrinth Rims / Gemini Bridges Special Recreation Management Area. The scrublands in the northeast corner of this sub-group soon give way to more a more dominate mix of sage, grass, and red rock; vehicle routes abound. The southwestern sub-group, leases 176 and 177, are on the edge of Hell Roaring Canyon -- more remote, with far fewer vehicle routes. About two-thirds of this subgroup is proposed for designation in the “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act”; the BLM previously found about one-third of the sub-group to have wilderness characteristics, which it chose not to protect. There are a few authorized, pending, or state mineral leases in the vicinity of either sub- group, but there are no active wells. .

(Lease) 174 -- It appears there may be some reasonable opportunities for leasing within the West of Arches group. The Team recommends that BLM defer leasing until BLM and NPS--and perhaps others such as Utah State Parks, Utah State Lands and USFS--develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) pertaining to the management concerns, communication protocols, and appropriate levels of analysis of surface-disturbing activities within the shared landscapes of the canyon country in the area surrounding Moab, Utah. Within the scope of this MOU, the Team recommends that a collaborative re-examination be undertaken of the merits of leasing these parcels. A local collaborative approach could lead to a clearer mutual understanding of how authorized uses and development of all public land ownerships affect the overall value of scenery and recreational opportunities and their corresponding effects on travel and tourism, as well as the their impacts to the ecological functions of the lands. The Team further suggests that such a collaborative effort should consider the benefit of preparing a relatively localized air quality model, the need for a night skies and a broad scale visual resource analysis. An outcome of this collaborative approach could be a State Director ... advising all oil and gas lessees of concerns to be addressed in permitting operations in the canyon country.

176, 177, 180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186, 196 and 197 -- Defer. See discussion for parcel 174.

* That a lease covering about 600 acres east of Arches National Park be removed from leasing.

The Review Team looked at one lease totaling approximately 600 acres; the lease is in two pieces. Managed by the Moab Field Office, almost the entire lease is within the canyon of the Colorado River. There are a couple of state mineral leases in the vicinity, some authorized leases to the north, and pending leases within the canyon contiguous to the south, but there are no active wells within three miles. Leases within the canyon have a No Surface Occupancy - No Exception stipulation.

242 -- Remove from leasing. Although NSO stipulations should ensure protection of the resource values present, there appears to be little reason to lease this parcel from a minerals management perspective and many social and natural resource reasons not to lease.

* Concerning seven leases encompassing 8,505 east of Canyonlands National Park, the report recommended that some be removed from leasing, while others be deferred for more analysis.

The Review Team looked at seven leases totaling approximately 8,505 acres; the seven leases are in a total of 10 pieces. Managed by the Moab Field Office, the leases are in two sub-groups. Leases 201-203 are along the Anticline Road—a Utah Scenic Backway, with the sagebrush flats giving way to the cliff-side views of Lockhart Basin on the west side and Hatch Wash on the east. Leases 205-208 are among the sage, piñon, and juniper along the Utah Scenic Backway to the Needles Overlook -- one of our nation’s incomparable vistas. There are both authorized Federal and state mineral leases contiguous with all these lease parcels, but only one producing well in the vicinity. Most of these leases are within areas proposed for designation in the “America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act”; the BLM found wilderness characteristics only on the edges of the 201-203 sub-group, which it chose not to protect through a “natural area” designation.

(Lease) 201 Defer. -- The Team recommends that BLM defer leasing until BLM and NPS--and perhaps others such as Utah State Parks, Utah State Lands and USFS-- develop an MOU or similar agreement pertaining to the management concerns, communication protocols, and appropriate levels of analysis of surface-disturbing activities within the shared landscapes of the canyon country in the area surrounding Moab, Utah. Within the scope of this MOU, the Team recommends that a collaborative re-examination be undertaken of the merits of leasing these parcels. A local collaborative approach could lead to a clearer mutual understanding of how authorized uses and development of all public land ownerships affect the overall value of scenery and recreational opportunities and their corresponding effects on travel and tourism, as well as their impacts to the ecological functions of the lands. The Team further suggests that such a collaborative effort should consider the benefit of preparing a relatively localized air quality model, the need for night skies and soundscapes policies, and a broad-scale visual resource analysis. An outcome of this collaborative approach could be a State Director advising all oil and gas lessees of concerns to be addressed in permitting operations in the canyon country.

The value of the shared landscape in this area appears to have been recognized through the RMP designation of nearly all of the East of Canyonlands area as the Canyon Rims Special Recreation Management Area, as well as the state’s designation of two Scenic Backways. The Greater sage-grouse stipulations should be removed. This parcel falls within the defined habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse. The NSO stipulation applied for VRM is not consistent within the Moab RMP, which identified a CSU stipulation for this concern.

202 -- Defer See the discussion for parcel 201.

203 -- Remove from leasing. The Team recommends several of the parcels near Hatch Point be removed from leasing altogether. If, however, leasing is someday determined to be in the public interest in order to protect against drainage, the Team felt no surface occupancy should be allowed, without any exceptions. The parcels in this area are along or very close to two Utah Scenic Backways—state-designated scenic routes. Also, development on the parcels in the Hatch Point area would likely be quite visible from Canyonlands National Park, either the Island in The Sky area, or from the Needles unit of the Park. Similarly, development on the parcels near Hatch Point would be in the foreground for users of the BLM-administered lands in the area and would likely be contrary to the VRM II classifications put on most of these lands in the Moab RMP.

205 -- Remove from leasing. See discussion for parcel 203. Also, the lease package for the December 2008 sale mistakenly included a NSO stipulation for VRM Class II (RMP says CSU), and stipulations for the Greater sage-grouse but this parcel falls within the range of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

206 -- Remove from leasing See discussion for parcel 203. Also, the lease package for the December 2008 sale mistakenly included stipulations for the Greater sage-grouse but this parcel falls within the defined range of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

207 -- Remove from leasing. See discussion for parcel 203. Also, the lease package for the December 2008 sale mistakenly included a NSO stipulation for VRM Class II (RMP says CSU), and stipulations for the Greater sage-grouse but this parcel falls within the range of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

208 -- Remove from leasing. See discussion for parcel 203. Also, the lease package for the December 2008 sale mistakenly included a NSO stipulation for VRM Class II (RMP says CSU), and stipulations for the Greater sage-grouse but this parcel falls within the range of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

In discussing the report Thursday, Secretary Salazar endorsed energy development on public lands, but stressed that it needed to be handled carefully.

"The oil and gas resources under our public lands are an important part of our energy future, but we must ensure that development is happening in the right way and in the right places,” the secretary said. “The report helps clear off the cloud that has hung over these 77 parcels since they were first proposed, and gets to the bottom of which should be leased and which – such as those near national parks – are simply not appropriate for development. The report also includes several important recommendations for leasing reforms that we will carefully review as part of our efforts to improve our oil and gas programs and to deliver a fair return to the taxpayer.”

In explaining why the latest review differed so much from the BLM findings that lead to the leasing decisions, the report pointed to:

• On-the-ground review of all parcels

• A diverse, experienced interdisciplinary review team

• The hindsight provided by the various lease protests and legal challenges

• The interaction between the Review Team and the responsible land managers and
their staff

• Time and attention dedicated to a single task of reviewing the parcels

• Separation from historical issues, baggage, and preconceptions

• Opportunity to see comparisons and contrasts between approaches, parcels, and decisions

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BLM_Utah77LeaseParcelReport.pdf349.5 KB