There are certainly places where drilling for gas and oil can be an appropriate use for public lands, and those that are should be made available for that purpose. The process by which drilling is determined to be appropriate, however, must be thorough, exhaustive and patient in considering all of the effects drilling will bring. The Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios Field Office personnel were reminded anew of how important it is to take care with that process, and righted an initial wrong.
The trouble began last August when the BLM offered more than 12,000 acres to lease for gas and oil development across La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Miguel and Dolores counties.
Those parcels had previously been deferred from leasing pending the completion of a long-awaited resource management plan for the Tres Rios office’s entire land portfolio, but the agency put the parcels back on the auction block with little public notice and even less outreach to affected parties.
After those parties – including neighbors, conservation groups and the La Plata County Board of Commissioners – cried foul, the BLM extended the comment period to gather more public input, and eventually deferred the parcels from its February lease sale. Those were two big and well-received steps.
The next has been the agency’s recognition of its errors and acknowledgement of a need to be more transparent and engaged with the public as decisions about public land are made. That is absolutely the right tone to strike, and beginning with outreach to county commissioners where lands are up for lease is a crucial part of that equation.
Counties have a significant stake in how public lands within their boundaries are managed. High-impact activity, such as drilling, places a burden on county roads and other infrastructure, and can affect water resources and public health.
It may not always have such negative consequences, but county leaders have a vested interest in ensuring that those potentials are adequately analyzed.
The BLM is right to recognize how critical it is to involve counties in leasing decisions, and deserves credit for pulling the proposed leases for now to allow ample time for such conversations.
The discussion and public input goes beyond elected officials, though, and the BLM should take great pains to involve all those who have concerns or expertise about a proposed lease of public lands. By casting a wide net in gathering input, the agency can proceed, knowing it is doing so with full involvement from the public it serves.
There may not be universal support for the proposed action – indeed that would be unprecedented – but discussing areas of contention is a far better notion than moving forward below the public’s line of vision.
The Tres Rios Field Office appears to have learned these valuable lessons in its most recent lease-sale offering.
Whether the parcels appear on the sale block again remains to be seen, but if they do, the BLM is far better positioned to justify the move after having taken the time to hear and consider the concerns raised by such a sale.