Oil and Gas Leasing Issues Come to a Head in Colorado

Feb 1, 2013

By Center for Western Priorities

The Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado office is backpedaling this week after a series of controversial leasing decisions left the agency in hot water with hunters and anglers, farmers and ranchers, former National Park Service employees, municipalities, water providers, and community groups.

State offices of the BLM are responsible for overseeing the leasing of public lands for oil and gas development. This responsibility requires the agency to balance the benefits and drawbacks of drilling on lands proposed for development. However, a string of controversial decisions across Colorado has led many to question the quality and motivations of the Colorado BLM’s recent leasing decisions.

  • The Roan Plateau: Last June, a judge found significant shortcomings with the BLM’s 2007 environmental analysis that would have allowed intensive drilling on the Roan Plateau. The BLM just announced that it will revisit its environmental impact statement. The Roan Plateau is one of Colorado’s truly spectacular landscapes and an economic engine for western Colorado, attracting hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts to the area’s wild beauty and abundant wildlife.
  • South Park: In November the BLM deferred leasing land in South Park to oil and gas—a critical watershed for metro Denver—after complaints from Aurora Water, Park County commissioners, sportsmen groups, and conservation organizations in the area.
  • Dinosaur National Monument: Three leases on the doorstep of Dinosaur National Monument were deferred. A January 2013 op-ed by former Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent Denny Huffman raised questions about the initial plan to lease lands around Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. He encouraged the BLM in Colorado to place a strong emphasis on balancing land protection with oil and gas leasing.
  • The North Fork Valley: The BLM’s proposed Valentine’s Day lease sale will put 20,000 acres in the North Fork Valley—known for its organic farming—at risk of being developed. Public outcry garnered 3,500 comments and 150 protest letters, leading the BLM to revise the initial plan and delay the lease sale. The BLM is now moving forward with leasing next month despite widespread local opposition.

What prompted the BLM in Colorado to plan oil and gas drilling in vital wildlife habitat, above a water source for over a million Coloradans, on the doorstep of a national monument, and in an area famed for organic farms and vineyards? Recently published comments from Colorado BLM Director Helen Hankins at a January 2013 Paonia town hall meeting may shed some light:

“The first goal of the Department of the Interior is to work towards energy independence,” Hankins told an audience of North Fork residents concerned about the proposed leasing.

In reality, the primary goal of the DOI is to “protect America’s natural resources and heritage.”

Hankin’s employer, the BLM—one of the DOI’s many agencies—states its mission as:

“To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Recent decisions to defer leases and revisit the plan for the Roan Plateau may signal recognition by Colorado BLM that something needs to change. Although, prior delays in North Fork and elsewhere have not stopped the BLM from moving forward and ignoring its mandate to balance important uses of public lands.

Whatever the case may be, the BLM’s Colorado office has reached a potential turning point. It now has the opportunity to adopt a more balanced approach. That means analyzing the competing interests, balancing the multitude of uses of our public lands, and ensuring oil and gas leasing doesn’t sacrifice communities, clean water, open spaces, and fresh air.