As we pass the Trump administration’s 18-month mark there are notable changes in the BLM’s approach to oil and gas leasing across Utah’s redrock wilderness. In a series of “Back to the Future” moments (reminiscent of the dark days of George W. Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton), the BLM has thrown out its 2010 leasing reforms and implemented a number of changes designed to sell more leases faster and in more special places than we’ve seen in nearly a decade.

For example, every quarterly lease sale now includes proposed leases on wilderness-quality lands spread out across the state; previously, lease sales rotated to coherent regions around the state and the BLM was more discriminating about which parcels it offered for sale. The agency has also done away with the comment period on lease sale environmental assessments and shortened the time for protests over proposed lease sales from 30 days to 10 days—drastically curtailing public involvement in public land management.

March 2018 Lease Sale
At the March 2018 competitive oil and gas lease sale, the BLM sold 51,400 acres of public land in southeastern Utah for energy development. This lease sale shines a light on the lengths to which the BLM under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will go to elevate “energy dominance” over all other uses of public lands.

Included in the sale were wilderness-caliber lands in Labyrinth Canyon, Goldbar Canyon, Hatch Canyon/Hatch Wash, and Tin Cup Mesa. Further, over National Park Service objections, the BLM sold parcels near Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments. The Park Service had blasted the inadequate environmental analysis the BLM relied on to offer the parcels, stating that the agency failed to analyze impacts to air quality, dark night skies, scenic values, soundscapes, and groundwater quality.

Many of the March sale parcels are located in the culturally rich Alkali Ridge Area of Critical Environmental Concern—a National Historic Landmark. In 2015, the BLM briefly considered leasing parcels in this same area but decided it lacked sufficient information on cultural resources. However, despite still lacking that information, the agency reversed its position and sold the parcels this year.

Finally, the agency refused to prepare any new environmental analysis before selling parcels in BLM-identified wilderness-caliber lands located less than a mile from Bears Ears National Monument. Instead, the BLM short-cut its legal obligations by relying on existing environmental reviews that never analyzed the site-specific impacts from the development of these parcels.

Hatch Canyon, one of many wild places in Utah threatened by the Trump administration’s quest for “energy dominance.” Copyright Ray Bloxham/SUWA

September 2018 Lease Sale
The BLM’s September 2018 oil and gas lease sale fits right into this terrible pattern. The agency proposes auctioning off more than 200,000 acres of federal public lands in the San Rafael Desert, an area rich in wilderness, scenic, recreational and ecological values near the Labyrinth Canyon stretch of the Green River. Less than two years ago the BLM deferred leasing in this same area, concluding that it lacked sufficient information about the public lands and resources at risk from development. Under Zinke’s “lease everything, lease everywhere” approach, the agency cast aside its prior conclusions and is moving forward with its leasing proposal despite still lacking the necessary information. Sound familiar?

SUWA has been, and will continue to be, engaged at every step of the BLM’s leasing process for both the March and September 2018 lease sales. Stay tuned for future updates.

—Landon Newell

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, summer 2018 issue)