Transcript: Why April was a huge month for public lands

Apr 23, 2024

This is an automatically generated transcript. Please excuse grammatical errors and typos. 

Aaron: Welcome to the Landscape, your show about America’s parks and public lands. I’m Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities. Having a great week here in Denver.

Kate: And I’m Kate Groetzinger in Salt Lake City. We’ve got two folks from the Wilderness Society here today to help us break down the big changes announced for public land management in the past few weeks. These are really exciting rulemakings or regulatory changes that will help protect and bring balance to public land management everywhere from New Mexico to Alaska. So stay tuned for that. But first, let’s do the news.

Aaron: Well, today’s episode really is all news, but there has been so much happening, especially over the last week. There’s a little bonus news before we get to all the other news.  and that is the conservation atlas. The Biden administration finally released its first draft of the Atlas last week. This is an online atlas that tracks land and water protections across the United States. Now, what got released last week is a beta version of the Atlas. It’s going to take a long time to get there because they are collecting conservation information across national, state, local, and private lands. It is a huge data lift, but this is an incredible first start. Just having this framework going forward is a huge step forward. And what this means in the long term is that it is going to allow us to put a concrete number on how close America is to achieving President Biden’s America The Beautiful goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and America’s waters by 2030. That is a goal, of course, that comes straight from scientists like Dr. En Sala, who, who we’ve talked to before. They are the ones warning that without protecting 30% of the world’s intact nature we are at risk of ecosystem collapse on, on the, the precipice of a sixth mass extinction. So the first step, of course, to protecting 30 is counting the 30 and getting this atlas out the door saying, here’s how we are going to get there and measure our progress is an incredibly important first step.

Kate: We’re here today with the Wilderness Society’s Michael Carroll and Justin Muse to talk through a handful of federal regulations or rulemakings that were finalized this month. Justin is the Government Relations Director at the Wilderness Society. Justin, thank you so much for being here.

Justin: Thanks, Kate. Thanks, Aaron. Good to be with you again.

Kate: And Michael is a campaign director at the Wilderness Society. Michael, thank you.

Michael: Thank you guys. Nice to be with you.

Kate: All right, so these rules touch on everything from methane waste on public land to ecosystem restoration to caribou herds in Alaska. It’s been a very exciting month for all of us, and by exciting, I mean,  lots of work, but really, really cool stuff coming out of it.  some of these rules are already in effect and some will take effect soon. So let’s talk about ’em. Michael, going to you first, I know I just kind of covered this, but will you tell us what the main rules affecting public lands are that have come out in the past month or so?

Michael: Wow. Well the list is long and Justin should speak to the details, so I will hand it over to him as we get into the nitty gritty here. But the BLM, I mean, first, I think the place to start here, Kate, is really, with applause and gratitude and thanks to the Biden administration and the BLM in particular for having the vision and the courage to step up, to actually enact and do the process, the long process that it takes to get these new rules and regulations in place,  taken together as a whole. They amount to a significant change for the agency in terms of focusing on conservation and really set us up as Westerners and across this country to really meet the challenges of the climate crisis and the nature crisis that we’ve been facing across the West. The rules include A BLM methane rule, a new rule on renewables, an oil and gas rule, the public lands rule, which is near and dear to my heart, and been my main focus, the NPRA rule and a number of other provisions that they’ve enacted over the last few months. So significant rulemakings across the board that will change a lot of how the BLM approaches their management of public lands and shift us towards,  a sustainable future that hopefully we can take delivery on.

Aaron: Alright, so Justin, we’ve talked about these things kind of interchangeably as rule makings or regulations from a technical standpoint, what are these things that have just come into effect over the last month and how do they, how are they created? They’re not laws, right?

Justin: That’s that’s right, Aaron.  so just to differentiate rule rulemaking and regulation. So a rulemaking is the process of creating a rule or a regulation. It’s governed by the Administrative Procedure Act. It includes a notice and public comment period, a response from the administration, from the agency,  to public comment and then finalization.  and we saw these rules get finalized in the last two weeks or so that we’ll discuss today.  so that’s sort of the last step in that rulemaking process.  rule and regulation, those are pretty synonymous, interchangeable terms, but essentially what those are is that’s an agency carrying out their authority as delegated by Congress.  So it’s how they implement statute and how they work from day to day to carry out their mission.

Aaron: With all of this happening within the last month everyone in the public lands community writ large, has needed to specialize to, to bone up on certain rules so that we could be talked knowledgeably about them, especially to reporters. Kate, you really read up on the BLM’s methane and oil and gas rules. Walk us through what they do and that, that methane rule in particular, there was a bit of confusion on how what BLM is doing on methane fits in with what the EPA was also doing on methane, roughly at the same time.

Kate: Totally. Yeah. Lots of oil and gas rules coming out all around the same time is always a good idea. Really makes it clear for the public <laugh>. Just kidding. But I’ll try to help with that. So, yeah, the BLM put out a methane rule and then a few weeks later, an oil and gas rule. Obviously, methane is gas, but the methane rule, we’ll start there. Really the sort of groundbreaking thing that it does is it puts a royalty on wasted natural gas. And so when oil and gas drillers, when they drill for oil, oftentimes they hit natural gas and it’s oftentimes treated as like a waste product, and they just sort of set it on fire and, which is called flaring, and if you ever drive through like an oil and gas field in the west, and you see those pipes with flames coming out of the top, that’s a flare. And then venting is when they just release it directly into the air. And the reason this is a problem is methane is a really potent greenhouse gas. So the BLM decided to start trying to charge companies for the gas that they waste. Now by the BLM’s own projections, they expect to bring in around $50 million a year from this new fee, which is awesome. And it also will hopefully cut down on the amount of natural gas that’s wasted and encourage these companies to direct more of that gas into pipelines so they can actually sell the gas, and the this rule also included increasing detection requirements so that companies actually have to know whether they’re leaking natural gas and methane into the atmosphere, and then of course, charge them for it. So how that gets implemented is, I think, a little bit up in the air and to be seen. But as Justin mentioned, these rulemakings are not new laws. These are all things that the agencies are enabled to do by current law. And the Inflation Reduction Act actually did have this methane fee in it. And so this is just the agency figuring out how to comport with the inflation reduction Act. It’s not a new law. They’re not going rogue. The oil and gas rule, which followed the methane rule, applies more to the actual act of drilling on land, and it again, codifies a lot of things that were passed in the Inflation Reduction Act. So again, the agency is not just creating things out of thin air. And it did also increase bonding fees. And bonding fees are the amount of money that companies put up ahead of drilling. And essentially like in a security deposit, that is money that can be used to clean up the well, if the company goes bankrupt or just fails to clean it up themself. So that rule is really exciting. It raised the bonding rate for an individual well from $10,000 to $150,000. So that rate hadn’t been updated since the 1960s. Everyone who’s listening knows that things have gotten more expensive since the 1960s. So it was just a common sense adjustment really to make sure that we’re com oil and gas companies are cleaning up their own messes, and then quickly I’ll touch on the EPA methane rule, which you mentioned. This rule is really exciting because the BLM’S Methane rule only applies to drilling on federal public lands. The methane EPA rule, sorry, the EPA methane rule, applies to all sources of methane, well, not all sources of methane, but sources of methane from oil and gas production, no matter where they’re located. So this could be on private land, state land, processing facilities. And it essentially increases the requirements for leak detection. So, they’re gonna catch more of these methane leaks, and then it increases requirements for addressing those leaks when they’re found. So that will probably have a huge impact on the amount of methane that’s being wasted and contributing to climate change, as will the other two rules. Oh, one other thing I wanna mention about the oil and gas rule,  is that it actually directs the BLM to lease public lands for oil and gas drilling that are already near disturbed areas and away from important habitat and recreational areas. So that’s really just a smart way to use our federal resources. So yeah, these rules are very exciting, and we’ll be looking to see how they’re implemented.

Aaron: I was gonna say that we are already seeing the effects of the inflation reduction Act on the oil and gas leasing program. The IRA put a $5 per acre fee for nominating lands for leasing before companies could nominate lands for free. And that resulted in a whole lot of pointless nominations of stuff that companies weren’t interested in and would never end up drilling on. And now that companies have to put up money on the front end, lo and behold, nominations have fallen dramatically, from the high in 2019 of more than 4 million acres nominated in just one year there. During the Trump administration during the last year, during calendar year 2023 we saw a 98% drop in overall nominations from the oil and gas industry. So that alone confirms what we’ve been saying all along, that the vast majority of public lands that will ever produce oil and gas have already been leased, and any future leasing is pretty marginal now that companies have to put up money on the front end to say they’re interested in potentially drilling on something that has not already been leased.

Kate: Justin, going to you next. Will you tell us about the renewable energy rule? I know that you’ve been focused on that. What does it do?

Justin: Thank you, Kate very much for the question. So back on April 11th, the Bureau of Land Management issued its final renewable energy rule. That rule does a number of things to reduce barriers to responsible renewable energy deployment, specifically wind and solar energy deployment on federal public lands. Some of the barriers that we’ve heard to deployment have been that megawatt capacity fees and acreage rents that companies have to pay to develop on federal public lands are significantly higher than they are on state and private land. So this rule takes steps to lower megawatt capacity fees and recalculate acreage rents in a way that will ultimately reduce costs and spur hopefully more wind and solar deployment on federal public lands. It also does a few other important things, like extending the rights of way leases and grants from 30 years to 50 years which is more in alignment with how long wind and solar projects actually last. And it allows the Bureau of Land Management to conduct non-competitive leases in the lowest conflict pre-screened areas when it is in the public interest. Back in 2012, the Bureau of Land Management identified a number of solar energy zones just over 300,000 acres worth of places that are appropriate for solar energy development and where at the project level a solar developer can begin the process to develop and go through a kind of a streamlined process in order to get their project up and running. These places have been affirmatively confirmed to have fewer resource conflicts with habitats and cultural resources and,  and are generally places where we really support solar development happening. But that they are subject to competitive leases. And this has resulted in a lot of cases in industry avoiding developing there because that leads to upward bidding and costs increasing. So this, this just gives BLM the flexibility to to reduce costs by kind of on a case by case basis conducting,  non-competitive auctions. So we’re really pleased to see that we think it’s going to ultimately lead to more responsible development of solar on public lands. And we’re excited to see this finalized. And like Kate mentioned, many of these rules, actually all of these rules are, based on statute that’s been enacted by Congress. This one is a piece of legislation that’s been championed by folks on both sides of the aisle. Paul Gosar in Arizona, Mike Levin in California,  Martin Heinrich in New Mexico, and previously Martha McSally, also from Arizona, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of, of 2019, a provision of it enabled the secretary to,  to take these actions. And that specific provision was enacted as part of the year end omnibus appropriations language in 2021. So again, happy to see it happen.  You know, it exists in statute, this authority exists in statute, and we’re excited to see BLM move forward with it.

Aaron: Alright, let’s get to what is for all of us here, the big one, certainly the most exciting news to happen at BLM this year. And this is the public lands rule also known as the conservation and landscape health rule. Michael, this has been one of your babies here for the last however many years. Before we get into what it does and why it’s such a big deal, how are you feeling now that this thing is over the finish line?

Michael: Tired, <laugh> No, super excited. I mean, this is a long time coming and it’s well beyond just my tenure engaged in this work. I mean, this has been needed and has been advocated for since 1976 when FLPMA, the Federal Lands Policy Management Act, was enacted. And the regulatory framework for conservation wasn’t built out at that time. The rule that just passed last Thursday gives or actually puts in place that regulatory framework for the first time since the law was enacted. So it’s a huge effort that’s happened over generations of local communities and lawmakers and conservationists advocating for it. So it’s a massive victory for the community, but also for folks who love to recreate and go out on BLM public lands and enjoy them.

Aaron: Alright, so what does it do?

Michael: I think the director said it the most simply, and we can get into the gory details, but most simply as…

Aaron: Please get into the gory details, that’s why we’re here. We want all the gory details,

Michael: We’ll do it. The director first and foremost said, look, this protects the best, restores the rest, and gives the agency the ability to make smart decisions. That’s the simple answer. The long-winded answer is just this: it, for the first time, directs local managers to prioritize ecosystems and manage for ecosystem resilience. It offers up directions on how to do that by inventorying regularly intactness of BLM lands, so we can understand where are those habitat corridors, how does the landscape fit together, where are there developments that we need to manage around to protect those areas? It also calls out land health and managing for land health standards. So it actually directs local managers to say, what condition is the landscape that I manage in, and what do we need to do to actually address that land health? And then it offers up a couple of tools and recommendations for how to achieve land health and to preserve intact. And those are areas of critical environmental concern. So identifying and protecting areas as areas of critical environmental concern, which the agency can do. In fact, it’s the only tool called out in FLPMA, as a tool to be used and then litigate or restoration and mitigation leases it and creates a tool for the agency to use with communities to be able to restore lands that have been degraded or to do mitigation work. Say there’s a solar development or an oil and gas development, and they need to do compensatory mitigation around their development. This gives the agency the ability to do that right on BLM lands and to work with those folks to do compensatory mitigation in those particular places. So the rule itself, you can break it down pretty simply, it’s really giving direction to local managers so that when they’re doing planning and developing new management schemes for the lands that they manage, that they have the conservation tools in their toolbox to be able to enact conservation on those landscapes.

Aaron: Do we know yet what these restoration and mitigation leases are gonna look like in practice once this law, this rule goes into effect in 30 ish days? What do we, what kind of proposals do you think we might see in terms of restoration mitigation? Who are the players gonna be?

Michael: I mean, I think you’re gonna see a lot of, and you’ve heard this in some of the response to the actual announcement of the final rule, you’re gonna see a lot of local communities who have wanted to restore their watersheds in their backyards, working with the BLM hand in glove to take out restoration leases, to have some certainty around the investments that those local communities are gonna make in restoring a watershed, for example, on BLM lands. That those lands aren’t going to be developed into the future, that they can work with the agency to say, for this X amount of time this is gonna be a restoration project and we’re gonna invest in it. So local municipalities will be engaged in that. I think you’ll see hunting and fishing organizations, there’s already some examples where hunting and fishing organizations across the west have worked with the federal agencies to do restoration projects. This just adds some more clarity around those and certainty for those entities to do it. State governments, I think, will be engaged in doing some of this restoration into the future. And then ultimately there is the opportunity for conservation organizations. Say you’ve got your, like for example, here in Durango where I live you have the San Juan Citizens Alliance that worked long and hard on Hermosa Creek and the Hermosa Creek wilderness proposal. Well, if there’s a need for restoration in the Hermosa Creek drainage, you could see a scenario where local conservation organizations could work with the agency to actually do those restoration projects. So, we think that there’s a lot of opportunity around the restoration component of this, and that it’s a huge boon for local communities across the west.

Aaron: Thank you for, for fleshing that out. I think that’s one of the things that folks had trouble envisioning. So laying that out is really great. Justin, I wanna bring you back in here. Give us a sense of how, how the public lands rule is important in context with all of these other rules. You’ve got stuff happening on renewables, you’ve got responsible oil and gas rules. So how does the conservation part of this fit in along with everything else that we’re seeing this month?

Justin: Yeah, I think that there is a broader narrative here, for sure. And what we’ve noticed over the past, you know decades you know, up to a century, is that public lands have been managed to prioritize extraction. There have been defacto subsidies for oil and gas leasing and drilling on federal public lands as far back as there’s been oil and gas leasing and drilling on public lands at all. And what these rules do is they bring the costs of oil and gas leasing up, in order to account for some of that, some of that defacto subsidy and ensure that state and federal taxpayers get a fairer return for the use of their federal public lands. And we also see some movement in the other direction with renewable energy to make it a little bit easier to develop wind and solar on federal public lands, putting them kind of on a level playing field. And with the conservation rule that Michael just spoke extremely eloquently about, you’re putting conservation on that same plane. So now all of the multiple uses that BLM lands can be used for are on a leveler playing field. And oil and gas isn’t placed above any other use.

Michael: Aaron, let me jump in on that too, just to put it plainly, the BLM and the Biden administration have quietly put in place the regulatory tools that Americans need to meet the climate crisis and the nature crisis head on. We haven’t had the regulatory framework and the changes that we needed to actually address climate change on federal public lands. What has happened over the last few months, and we can’t say it loud enough or shout it from the rooftops enough, has given us the ability to make public lands part of the solution to the climate crisis in the nature crisis across this country. And that’s thanks to the Biden administration and the BLM

Kate: Awesome, thank you guys for putting that in context and sort of just saying it plainly for people, because I think even sitting here listening and having worked on these, I don’t know if I fully comprehended the enormity of it. So, I appreciate that description, Aaron, going to you.  One last really big thing that happened is that the administration protected a huge amount of land in Alaska. Will you tell us a little bit about that? I think it’s the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska Rule.

Aaron: Yeah. This is or also known as the NPR-A. And this is, again, a very big deal because the NPR-A is a huge swath of Alaska, and there are obviously parts of that that are too fragile and too risky to drill, especially in light of climate change, in light of permafrost melting. So what this final rule for the NPR-A does is it sets aside 13 million acres for permanent protection. That is to say no leasing no new drilling in these areas because they are too important for subsistence uses for Alaska native tribes, and also for the wildlife in there, for the caribou, for the birds. These are areas that are too fragile right now and need to be permanently protected. So 13 million acres is a huge deal in terms of protecting America and America’s lands from the effects of climate change.

Aaron: And then along with that NPR-A rule the Biden administration also rejected the, what’s called the Ambler Mining Road, which was a proposal to build a $350 million 200 mile road through gates of the Arctic National Parks and Preserve. It would’ve crossed 11 rivers, would’ve crossed thousands of streams in hopes that it would land terminate at what will someday be a future mine that hasn’t actually been proposed. But the state of Alaska is convinced there’s a lot of copper there, and they wanted to have this road in place to allow future mining. And the Biden administration looked at the science and said, no way. You cannot cross thousands of streams without permanently harming the wildlife, the fish, the birds through that area. And this is a national park and preserve. It just doesn’t make sense.  so saying no, once and for all to this Ambler Mining Road is a very big deal. And having all of this science on the record is also an incredibly important step because if a future administration 5, 10, 15 years down the road wanted to come in and say, oh, no, we’re doing the road, after all, they would have to overcome all of this science that is now in the record that BLM has has put down. So a very big month for Alaska as well as the whole rest of the country here.

Kate: Okay. So let’s talk about timing.  Michael, I had this question going to you, and maybe it makes more sense going to Justin since he deals with Congress. But why, why are all these rules coming out right now? What’s the big rush?

Justin: Yeah, that, that’s a great question, Kate. And you know, I think that for one, yesterday was Earth Day, so I think that the administration thematically probably wanted to center some of these announcements around that big annual milestone. But also one thing we all need to be mindful of is a tool called the Congressional Review Act. This is a piece of legislation that was enacted back in the mid nineties as part of speaker Gingrich’s contract with America. And essentially what it allows Congress to do is delete a rule by passing joint resolution through the House and Senate and getting signed into law by the president. That last piece is interesting because obviously we have a Democratic president right now, but the big threat is that in the event that in January, 2025, you know, there is a change in power, a Congressional Review Act resolution could potentially be enacted on any rule that was finalized and communicated to Congress in the last 60 days of the congressional session. Legislative days. So that’s impossible to calculate right now because we don’t know exactly when the House and Senate will be in session. They do have their calendars for 2024, but session weeks are often pulled down or put back on the calendar. So it’s a little bit of a moving target. But just making sure that these rules are finalized and communicated to Congress beyond that window, helps ensure that they can’t be repealed should the political winds turn and in 2025 look different landscape wise.

Michael: Kate, I might just jump in on that a little bit here too. I think it’s important to remember the history of the Biden administration, as to why a lot of these rules are rolling out now. And that history is this, when the Biden administration and the BLM started up at the beginning of this last administration, they had to do a massive amount of fixing the agency that was basically,  destroyed under the Trump administration with staff leaving, and they moved the headquarters to the west and they moved around staff and all of that type of thing. The agency really needed to rebuild almost from scratch, to get back up to speed. That took some time. These rulemaking efforts also take time, and the Biden administration did it right by making those processes long engaging. They took in federal or a public comment throughout those, the public lands rule alone had a 90 day comment period, six public meetings, 200,000 comments, 90% of which were favorable. But they went through those exhaustive processes on all of these rules to make sure that they did it right. The timing just happened to work out that a lot of them are coming now because they went through that entire process. And you have the threat of the Congressional Review Act that’s looming out there. I think that the Republicans in the house and in the Senate, they’re definitely already challenging a lot of these rules. And we’re gonna see legislation, whether it’s a Congressional Review Act legislation or other pieces of legislation, the Public lands rule, for example, there’s a bill by Representative Curtis that’s in the house that we understand is in the coming weeks going to be considered on the floor, all of that we’re gonna need to defend against, to defend these rules. So they’re gonna challenge them, but a lot of the progress that we’ve seen has been because the Biden administration took the time to systematically go through the legal process for all of this to establish these rules, and they’re all coming out right now.

Kate: While we’re all here, let’s go ahead and talk about other big public lands, things that are happening. There is an effort to amend plans to protect sage grouse habitat going on right now. Aaron, will you tell us a little bit about that?

Aaron: Yeah, so this was in March the BLM  proposed a draft version of what’s called the Sage Grouse Resource Management Plan, which is actually a whole bunch of resource management plans that inform how BLM does its job everywhere there is sage grouse. This is incredibly important because this is something the Obama administration tried to do back in 2015. That plan was basically knee capped by the Trump administration, all of that then got tied up in court for many years, leaving a very old plan in place. All the while sage grouse populations keep plummeting across the west. And at this point, this is the last best effort to prevent the sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, which is something that everyone wants to avoid because that would have drastic effects across the entire West that make it hard to do just about anything. So to prevent that you have to save the grouse right now, you have to stabilize those populations. So this grouse RMP is in a public comment period right now, that comment period ends in June. And hopefully fairly quickly after that, you’ll see a final sage grouse, RMP in place that will help protect the bird and prevent that Endangered Species Act listing. And then the only other thing I wanna flag, that Justin may be able to talk about, is the solar program environmental impact statement that’s on the way.

Justin: Sure. Happy to talk more about that. So on April 18th the Bureau of Land Management concluded a 90 day public comment process on its utility scale solar programmatic environmental impact statement.  Aaron and Kate, thanks again for hosting me to speak more about this back in back in February. But essentially this is a long process to determine which BLM lands across 11 western states are appropriate for solar energy applications, which should be completely excluded from you know, companies even being allowed to apply to build on,  and in determining how much acreage should be open for, for applications. But that comment period is now closed. The next step would be for the agency to issue a final programmatic EIS,  respond to comments that they received over the 90 day comment period. Select an alternative.  There are five alternatives that make various levels of acreage available for solar applications across the west, and to sign a record of decision that implements the alternatives that they select. So we expect that to happen sometime in the fall maybe, but more on that hopefully soon.

Kate: Awesome. Well, that was a lot of public lands news for you guys. And we’re so lucky to have Michael Carroll and Justin Muse with the Wilderness Society here to talk about it. Thank you guys both, really appreciate your help and your knowledge.

Michael:  Thank you.

Justin: Thank you both.

Kate: Hey folks, I’ve got a quick clarification on the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska Rule. Aaron said the rule will end new drilling and leasing on around 13 million acres in the NPRA, but actually it’s a little more complicated than that. In fact, the rule ends new leasing on 10.6 million acres, but some of that land is already leased to oil and gas companies and could still be drilled just with much higher environmental standards created by the rule.

Aaron: Well, that is it for today, folks. Go follow us on social media if you don’t already. Our colleague Sterling is doing a spectacular jog on TikTok taking everything that we just talked about over the last half hour and somehow condensing it down to 90 seconds at a time. It’s great. Also, of course, send us your feedback podcast@westernpriorities.org.

Kate: Thanks again to Justin and Michael for joining us today. And thank you for listening to the landscape.