White House turns to obscure land use plans to lock in oil, gas drilling

The Trump administration is rolling out land use plans for regions across the West that could keep oil and gas flowing for decades. But the plans are largely flying under the radar.

Chaco Culture National HIstorical Park in New Mexico
NPS
July 30, 2020, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration is readying to roll out a slew of plans in the final months of the president’s first term that could lock in oil and gas drilling in Western states for decades to come.

The Resource Management Plans are largely slipping past scrutiny in Washington, failing to garner the same profile as energy regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, among other federal agencies.

But oil and gas advocates and opponents alike say the management plans, which include hundreds of pages of arcane detail, are critical to the future of fracking in huge swathes of the West, including areas close to iconic landscapes like Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, and the North Fork of Colorado’s Gunnison River.

“Not as much attention has been paid to these land-use plans as there should be because these are really sweeping plans that decide how our public lands are managed across millions of acres,” said Alex Daue, a Denver-based energy and climate expert at The Wilderness Society. “If finalized, [the plans] could lock in this whole ‘energy dominance’ approach for decades.”

The Bureau of Land Management is continuing to solicit comments through Sept. 25 on a proposal for land use, including energy development, in Northwest New Mexico. That plan could be finalized before the end of the year, along with plans that cover New Mexico’s Permian Basin and all of Eastern Colorado. In April, the BLM finalized a plan for the Uncompahgre region of Colorado.

“I certainly think that given it’s an election season and we could have a new administration in January, the goal for this administration would be to get those finalized by the end of the year,” said Tripp Parks, vice president of government affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, which promotes oil and gas development.

Parks said the administration has, with the management plans, “done an excellent job” of “striking that balance between resource development and protecting the environment and protecting wildlife.”

The BLM aims to facilitate multiple uses of public lands that include recreation, energy development, and scenic and historic preservation, among other activities in line with the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Agency spokesperson Derrick Henry declined to comment on the timing for the finalization of the management plans.

"Under its existing laws and regulations, the BLM develops and revises Resource Management Plans consistent with its multiple-use mandate,” Henry said. “These RMPs meet the requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and other laws, which provide multiple opportunities for public comment and participation."

BLM is hammering out the plans at a particularly divisive time for the agency.

President Trump’s nominee for BLM director, William Perry Pendley, who is “exercising the authority of the director,” is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Environmentalists and Democrats strongly oppose Pendley, who in 2016 authored a column titled “The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands.”

Tribal leaders and conservation advocates across the West argue that the BLM is prioritizing oil and gas development above those other public uses through the Resource Management Plans.

For the Permian Basin plan, which covers the areas surrounding Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the BLM predicts its preferred finalized version will pave the way for leasing on roughly 87,000 more acres than could be currently leased. The BLM argues that its preferences for the Eastern Colorado and Northwest New Mexico plans would roughly maintain the current acreage available for oil and gas leasing.

Local advocates, however, are skeptical, citing fraught relations spanning generations.

“I don’t know how much you would trust BLM’s crystal ball,” said Mario Atencio, a Navajo Nation member who sits on the board of Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental organization. “The dominance agenda is to facilitate oil and gas. The ideal of multi-use is laughable. It’s the arm of colonialism.”

Atencio opposes the BLM’s draft for the region, which encompasses Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a site of immense cultural significance to Pueblo, Navajo, and other Native American communities. Atencio and many other advocates are calling on the BLM to delay further rollout of the plan over public outreach challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to critics, the plans tee up nearly all acreage in the planning areas for potential future leasing.

The BLM regularly conducts lease auctions in Western states. Even oil and gas proponents, like Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma, have in recent years criticized the agency for allowing wildcatters to purchase low-value tracts at rock-bottom prices.

Meanwhile, Trump this week championed fossil-fuel development at an event near a Double Eagle Energy oil rig in Midland, Texas, a long-time oil and gas hub just miles from the BLM planning area around Carlsbad.

“The United States is now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas on the face of the earth,” Trump said Wednesday. “We will never lose this position.” Trump then signed a number of pipeline permits and extended liquified-natural-gas export licenses.

The Trump campaign also released an ad Wednesday alleging that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden will ban fossil fuels and nix “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

For his part, Biden has steadily ramped up plans to tackle climate change and curb fossil-fuel production. He’s pledging to zero out carbon emission in the power sector by 2035 and prohibit “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” while also increasing royalty payments for fossil fuel producers.

Public lands have emerged as a key climate change front. House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva is leading legislation to pause new lease sales and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions on public lands by 2040.

A Biden administration could roll out new Resource Management Plans but that would be an arduous and lengthy—likely years long—regulatory process. Experts expect him to choose another route to address fossil-fuel production.

And oil and gas advocates are already warning those plans would be met with immediate litigation.

Biden "has said he’s going to shut down leasing on public lands. And we’ll see the avenue he tries to do that. We would certainly plan to be in court the next day,” Parks said.

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