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Production, conversation groups challenge oil and gas leases

By Brady Oltmans
Pinedale Roundup
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

PINEDALE – A Wyoming production group submitted a protest to the Bureau of Land Management regarding oil and gas leases on the same day a coalition of environmental groups also petitioned the BLM for the same reason.

While these petitions all centered on President Joe Biden’s administration’s plans to resume oil and gas leasing sales on public lands in late June, they are for vastly different reasons.

A litany of environmental groups submitted a formal protest to the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming office in reference to 129 nominated parcels across various locations, including Pinedale. That came the same day as a protest from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which took issue with the diminished amount of parcels for sale. The BLM is offering less than a third of requested parcels in the sale later this month.

“The leases that they did offer for sale, many of them are in some of the most remote, most difficult places to reach,” PAW President Pete Obermueller said. Because of this, he argued the leases for sale might not be financially beneficial to the industry.

The PAW argued the BLM does not have the legal authority to deny the sale of other land parcels.

“(Federal Land Policy and Management Act) is the vehicle that determines which lands are and are not available and is accomplished during the development of a resource management plan,” the protest letter reads.

The letter goes on to argue the BLM cannot outright deny a parcel’s availability for competitive bid.

Linda Baker, executive director of the local Upper Green River Alliance, told Wyoming Public Radio that, under the National Environmental Policy Act, leases could be legally deferred for further review.

“It makes common sense to review the necessity of leasing some of those parcels, especially some of those that are in the most sensitive wildlife habitats that we have,” she said. “For example, the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor is one of the longest overland migration corridors in the Western Hemisphere. And, some of those leases are directly in the middle of that migration corridor.”

Dan Ritzman – lands, water and wildlife campaign director for the Sierra Club – said the coalition’s filed protest is critical for the Biden administration to meet its established climate goals.

“One of the biggest single sources of greenhouse gases across the country is fossil-fuel leasing on our public lands,” Ritzman said. “So to address climate change, we need to keep those fossil fuels in the ground, keep them from being burned.”

The Sierra Club was one of 15 national groups that jointly submitted the 88-page protest before the first leasing sale since the Biden administration’s moratorium. Oil companies have called for opening up leases to expand drilling and lower gas prices. Conservationists, like Ritzman, have pointed to the various leases already purchased that have yet to be developed.

“The oil and gas industry is currently sitting on millions of acres that they have yet to develop,” Ritzman said. “They are making those claims not to help the general public with gas prices but get their hands on more of these public lands.”

The petition argues the BLM, among other things, failed to consider alternatives. It also states the Wyoming lease sale is “arbitrary and capricious,” while offering no explanation for why large-tract lease sales in Wyoming differ from the small handful of leases in other states.

“The Administrative Procedure Act requires the agency to offer some explanation for why Wyoming is being treated differently,” the petition argues.

Petitioners for this protest include: Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens for a Healthy Community, Dakota Resource Council, Barbara Vasquez, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Environmental Law Center, Evergreen Action, Waterkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Living Rivers/Colorado Riverkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, Rio Grande Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.

The protest argues the court decision of Louisiana v. Biden, which was issued last summer, does not require leasing sales every three months in every office. The protests also argue an adequate National Environmental Policy Act review is required before offering lease sales.

Like Ritzman said previously, the crux of the petition relies on the possible environmental impacts of the lease sales. Worries listed pertained to drinking water, air quality, soil quality and wildlife habituation hazards, in addition to climate worries.

“The climate crisis is fundamentally an incremental problem and the contribution of individual oil and gas development actions on the part of the BLM to climate change are difficult to assess, precisely because it is rare that such actions – taken in isolation – will be truly significant at a national or global scale,” the petition reads. “This is particularly true at the level of an individual lease sale, where the projected development of mineral resources on a given lease or set of leases will reduce the remaining global and national carbon budgets by vanishingly small fractions.”

Statistically, the protest argues fossil fuel development on BLM lands accounts for 14 percent of total American emissions, 1.6 percent of global emissions and nearly 20 percent of all emissions in the U.S. from fossil fuel production.

This lease sale, scheduled for June 21-22, will also feature an increased royalty rate of 18.75 percent on leases sold for the first time, per orders from the U.S. Department of the Interior. This new rate more closely resembles rates charged by states and private landowners.

This will be the first lease sale in 15 months of the Biden administration. The administration issued a pause on lease sales in early 2021. Various states, including Wyoming, sued the administration for pausing lease sales. The Louisiana v. Biden court case ruled last summer that lease sales must continue.

This comes at a time of record oil profits. Shell Oil brought in more than $9 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2022. A report from The Guardian stated that amount nearly tripled the company’s profits from the same time last year.

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