County to request deferral on drilling leases

Two commissioners ask for updated resource plan before sale on 12,000-plus acreage

Natural-gas and oil leases on more than 12,000 acres in Southwest Colorado will be auctioned next week, unless La Plata County is effective in a last-ditch effort to change the Bureau of Land Management’s mind.

The La Plata County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday directed staff to write a letter requesting that the eight La Plata County parcels up for lease sale be deferred until the BLM completes an updated Resource Management Plan.

A Resource Management Plan is a document that acts as a guide for BLM projects and decisions in a certain area. The Resource Management Plan that covers La Plata County was created in 1985 and amended in 1991. A new plan is expected to be approved in spring.

“The BLM has the cart before the horse, and it is incumbent on the county to urge deferral of the lease sale until we have more information,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

Of the 12,175 acres to be leased in the Tres Rios Field office, which covers Southwest Colorado, 10,761 are in La Plata County near Hesperus.

Before putting the leases up for sale, the BLM went through an environmental analysis that assessed potential effects of leasing the nominated parcels for gas and oil development. The final protest period for that analysis closed Dec. 17.

The draft environmental analysis was first released for public comment in August and received more than 70 pages of comment. Many of the comments submitted by residents and environmental groups criticized the BLM’s environmental analysis as being based on an outdated Resource Management Plan. La Plata County sent two comment letters, one outlining technical comments and the other requesting that the BLM better explain and notice its environmental-analysis process.

Connie Clementson, field manager of the BLM’s Tres Rios office, met with the former Board of County Commissioners last year and assured the board that the environmental assessment for the lease sale is in compliance with the to-be-adopted Resource Management Plan, Courtney Roseberry, a county planner, told commissioners.

Commissioner Bobby Lieb said he was satisfied with Clementson’s assurance, but commissioners Lachelt and Julie Westendorff had concerns with lease sales based on an environmental assessment created using the 1985 Resource Management Plan.

“I don’t feel comfortable giving (BLM) the benefit of the doubt that the leases will comply with the new Resource Management Plan,” Westendorff said.

Lachelt and Westendorff also supported the idea of encouraging the state’s BLM office to implement master lease plans in areas around Colorado, including La Plata County. The Master Lease Plan concept was introduced by the Department of the Interior in 2010 and lays out an additional process for analyzing environmental effects of drilling leases.

A Master Lease Plan can be applied to specific areas where a more in-depth look is necessary because of changing circumstances, updated policies or new information, the Department of Interior memo said.

Several BLM field offices are creating such plans and one is in effect in Northwest Colorado, said Steven Hall, communications director for the Colorado BLM office. There are no lease plans in the Tres Rios Field Office area.

The concept allows for another layer of analysis between the 10,000 foot level of the Resource Management Plan and the relatively small scope considered for individual drilling permits, deputy county attorney Todd Weaver said.

Lachelt said the county should encourage that deeper level of analysis.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolbox to make sure we’re doing rigorous assessments of parcels that are for sale,” she said.

Commissioners planned to approve the letter to the BLM at a special meeting Thursday.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story