County, gas leasing

Commissioners overstep in pushing for specific planning protocol

There is a fundamental flaw or two at the heart of the Bureau of Land Management’s offering of 10,000 acres near Hesperus for gas and oil development, and the agency should reconsider its push to open the land to exploration. On that point, the La Plata County commissioners are correct in its consistent pushback against the BLM’s decision to place the parcels on November’s lease sale. In asking the agency to conduct a master leasing plan for the area, though, the county has gone too far.

The county sent a letter – signed by commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff; Bobby Lieb did not sign – urging the BLM to pull the leases from the block “until the agency makes a public commitment to utilizing, or includes in its forthcoming Resource Management Plan, a (master leasing plan) for this field development.” That specific request goes a bit beyond the county’s relevant interest in the issue, and is one that the BLM should heed, namely that lands within La Plata County are more than just gas and oil holding tanks.

As the letter says, “While our county has a history of oil and gas development, an important piece of our economy, we are also economically (and culturally) dependent on abundant wildlife, agricultural lands, clean air and water, and recreational opportunities. ... We must strike the right balance between oil and gas development and our treasured lands in order to protect the social and economic vitality of southwestern Colorado.”

That is all true and a valid argument upon which to base a request that the leases be held pending a more full and public review of their potential effects on those nondrilling-related resources that the county has a vested interest in protecting.

It is the BLM’s job, though, to determine the avenue by which that review is conducted, and while a master leasing plan might be appropriate, there may be other means by which to achieve the end the county seeks. Offering such a narrow suggestion as that outlined in the county’s letter is a bit meddlesome and presumptuous. The BLM, for better or worse, has autonomy over the tools it employs in analyzing its management decisions, and while it would behoove the agency to conduct a thorough, comprehensive review of the effects its proposed leases will have – particularly in relation to the upcoming and long-awaited Resource Management Plan for the Tres Rios Field Office – county commissioners are not in the position of advising the agency about which of those tools it should use.

The BLM certainly has not gone about its offering of the parcels in question in the full light of day or with the extensive consideration of impacts the decision commands. The county is right to call foul. Insisting on such a narrow prescription for remedy, though, puts the issue into the procedural weeds and obscures the larger point: that the BLM acted too quickly and shadily in offering the leases before the Resource Management Plan was finalized.