Drilling leases on 12,000 acres on hold

Agency voluntarily delays energy development sale

The Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado office on Thursday announced it will hold off selling natural-gas and oil leases on more than 12,000 acres in Southwest Colorado.

The 12 parcels in La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta and San Miguel counties were scheduled to be auctioned at a Feb. 14 lease sale.

The BLM decided to pull the leases in Southwest Colorado for two reasons, said Connie Clementson, field manager of the Tres Rios Field Office, which oversees the area.

Clementson said the local field office needed more time to address protests that were submitted about the environmental assessment of the lease sale. She also said she wanted to delay leasing until after she had time to meet with newly elected government officials in the affected counties.

“I want to have time to talk with the new commissioners and let them know how the process works,” Clementson said. “The timing was very hard to get everything to sync this time.”

A total of almost 80,000 acres across the state still are slated to be offered for gas and oil leases next week.

News of the deferral came as La Plata County commissioners were planning to send a letter to BLM State Director Helen Hankins requesting that all the La Plata County parcels be deferred from the lease sale. The letter cited the concern, echoed by other community members and environmental groups, that the lease sale was approved based on a 28-year-old plan for managing land-use decisions in the area. A new Resource Management Plan is expected to be approved this spring, and commissioners encouraged the BLM to wait until after that time to evaluate gas and oil leasing in this area.

After it was released in August, a draft environmental assessment of the effects of leasing the 12 parcels received more than 70 pages of comments. The final draft of the assessment received 25 formal challenges, or protests. Archuleta and San Miguel counties sent letters of protest, but La Plata County did not. Newly elected commissioners Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt led the effort to request the deferral of the Southwest Colorado parcels.

At a special meeting Thursday, commissioners agreed to send a letter of thanks to Hankins.

“I appreciate that the BLM is doing this on their own accord,” Westendorff said.

Commissioners also announced plans to meet with Clementson in March to discuss future management and environmental analysis of natural-gas and oil leasing.

In addition to deferring the sale of leases in the Tres Rios area, the BLM announced it would defer 20,555 acres that were set to be leased in the North Fork Valley in response to extensive public concern.

Beyond pockets of the Western Slope, criticism of BLM’s process has mounted across the state. In 2012, 85 percent of the acres in Colorado that originally were noticed for lease sale were protested – well above the protest rate of Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming, according to a report by the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.

Statewide, BLM’s critics point to the fact that Colorado’s planning documents are some of the most dated in the West and fail to consider changes in land use, drilling techniques and scientific knowledge, according to an article in The Denver Post.

According to the Wilderness Society’s analysis, resource management plans in Colorado are an average of 21 years old, while the average for Rocky Mountain states is 16 years.

The outdated Resource Management Plan for Southwest Colorado was a primary concern for the San Juan Citizens Alliance when it came to the gas and oil lease sale, said Jimbo Buickerood, the nonprofit’s public lands coordinator.

“You can’t plan based on something that is 25 years old,” Buickerood said. “For the long term, (the deferral decision) best serves the community as a whole.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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