Leasing with caution

If there is one thing that public-land managers and the gas and oil industry should know by now about operating in La Plata County, it is that engaging the community is crucial to fostering goodwill and support for any drilling plans. It is curious, then, why the Bureau of Land Management appears to be doing just the opposite in its plans to lease more than 12,000 acres for drilling west and south of Hesperus.

The land was nominated for leasing by an undisclosed company late this spring, and the BLM has completed a draft environmental assessment that supports the proposed lease. That is, on the surface, potentially well and good. However, a deeper look reveals some questions left unanswered in the agency’s hurry.

First, the parcels in question were among a group that was deferred from being leased when a similar effort was made in 2008. The reason the BLM – which until recently was managed jointly with the U.S. Forest Service – gave was that the agency was updating its resource management plan for the region and any new leases should reflect the protocol laid out in the new plan. That is sound logic – the existing plan was written in 1991 and is long overdue for an update. And had the agency completed its update since the leases were deferred, there would be consistency in the BLM’s decision-making. But it has not; the plan revision is still in the works, and, as such, the leases are governed by an out-of-date prescription that does not necessarily consider all sorts of important variables that are affected by gas and oil development: cumulative air quality, where the requisite water for development will be acquired, how wastewater will be handled and impacts on county roads, to name a few. Those questions were present in 2008, and they are no less so now. An updated plan surely will answer many of them, but without it, the agency is using old information to inform critical decisions about new projects.

It should follow, then, that the BLM’s decision to offer the leases after having previously deferred them would come with a thorough public input process wherein the neighbors most likely to be affected by the leases were actively engaged, where comment was sought and considered, and all involved had the opportunity to weigh in and have questions answered. That does not appear to have been the case.

Instead, the environmental assessment of proposed leases was released with minimal notice – including to many who had submitted scoping comments – and a minimal comment period of 30 days. That comment period closes Monday, and requests for extending it have been denied.

How unfortunate. The BLM’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” In doing so, it should proceed with the care and caution needed to ensure that health, diversity and productivity. Limiting dialogue with and input from the public hardly is the best approach to fulfilling that mission or instilling confidence in its commitment to being a good neighbor.

It is difficult to see the harm in slowing the process a bit, encouraging input and sharing the reasoning for offering these previously deferred leases. That is what informs good process – and good outcomes – for all parties.

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