White River, on a popular stretch near Enron Bridge, is been determined by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to have wilderness characteristics. The White River is among the parcels to be offered in the December 2018 BLM minerals lease sale. [Photo courtesy of SUWA]

The public has until 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31, to weigh in on the state’s largest sale of oil and gas leases on federal public lands in a decade.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gave a 15-day scoping period to allow the public to comment on the agency’s plan to offer approximately 329,826 acres of federal minerals in Utah for oil and gas leasing in December.

An initial public comment period that included a BLM analysis of the nominated parcels was eliminated as part of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s oil and gas leasing reform.

Seventeen of the parcels are from the BLM Moab Field Office and 21 are from the Monticello Field Office, including areas of the Book Cliffs Mountains, White River, Labyrinth Canyon and the Four Corners region.

“It’s the first sale under the new guidance from the BLM Washington office for streamlining the leasing process,” said Lisa Bryant, public affairs specialist for the BLM Canyon Country District.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are protesting the shortened public review time and the absence of an environmental assessment document from the BLM that the public has referred to in the past for preparing comments.

“There is only a series of maps that lack detail,” said Landon Newell, SUWA staff attorney. “There are no reviews, no documents provided to the public that we can use to form our comments. It’s a complete removal of the public from NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). Under the Obama administration you would have scoping after the public comment period. That entire process is no longer available.”

The new leasing guidelines direct the BLM to conduct quarterly lease sales statewide, as opposed to quarterly district sales, which has been the case since 2010. Sales were organized on a rotating schedule by district. Under the new guidelines, the BLM is conducting a sale across all of the lands that were nominated in the state.

“It’s why the sale looks larger than others,” Bryant said.

Sheri Wysong, Utah’s fluids minerals leasing coordinator for the BLM, said the change is a result of industry complaints that the time between nominating a parcel and purchasing a lease was too long. Statewide versus district sales reduces the time between parcel nomination and when companies may bid, and increases the number of parcels being considered in this particular sale.

“The new policy has reduced the time from (roughly) two years, to six months,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade association whose members hold leases in Utah. “We hear that we are locking land away. That’s not true. It’s merely a right to potentially develop oil and gas.”

Comment periods for scoping vary.

“Sometimes we don’t scope at all if we don’t think it’s controversial,” Bryant said, although she noted that the BLM always notifies the public of actions.

“This one, we know the public has interest in the leasing, so we issued a press release,” she said.

The public was first given the opportunity to provide input on the leasing of federal lands in 2008 when the BLM was working on its Resource Management Plan, Bryant said. During the crafting of that plan, the agency worked with the public and various stakeholders to conduct a full analysis of lands deemed appropriate for leasing, she said.

In the scoping period the BLM is seeking additional information that could help the agency determine whether a parcel is appropriate for leasing, Bryant said.

“We look at leases, the resource management plan, maps,” she said. “If there are significant concerns (that come up) we can also do onsite visits, although it’s not required.”

The public will be given another opportunity to comment on specific sites once the agency receives a proposal from an operator to explore or drill a well, Bryant said.

Bryant said feedback from agency partners, stakeholders and the general public helps the BLM make responsible decisions, particularly when the public makes the agency aware of issues such as ancient structures, wildlife concerns or hunting issues.

While scoping comments will not receive a formal response, comments are evaluated during the BLM decision-making process to identify issues that need to be addressed, according to its July 16 news release.

“The most effective comments will identify issues and concerns specific to the parcels being considered,” said Kent Hoffman, BLM’s deputy state director for lands and minerals.

Parcels are nominated when the BLM receives “expressions of interest” from industry representatives, although anyone can make a nomination, Bryant said.

Those who nominate parcels can be anonymous, although usually companies disclose who they are, Bryant said.

Brian Martinez, who manages NAVTEC Expeditions, a backcountry outfitter for Canyonlands and Arches national parks, said his business is affected by oil and gas development.

He said his clients are dismayed when, 25 miles down the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, they see and hear oil and gas development occurring just outside park boundaries in a “pristine area.”

Martinez had not heard about the scoping comment period for the upcoming December sale.

“We’re within earshot of oil and gas happening on a remote, proposed wilderness section of river,” he said. “We hear the helicopters, trucks. It’s pretty intrusive.”

Newell said that the parcels being offered in the December sale are in “extremely sensitive and critical areas.”

Many of the parcels are in San Juan County, areas rich in cultural resources, he said.

“They’re offering several parcels in the ACEC (Area of Critical Environmental Concern),” he said. “The BLM gives that designation to areas with important and sensitive resource values — in this instance, it is cultural resources.”

Nearly 100 parcels within the Uinta Basin are also up for bid, despite the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) designation of the basin area as “nonattainment” for not meeting designated standards for ozone levels.

Newell contends that new oil and gas development in or near the basin boundary will worsen the ozone problem there.

“How is the public to weigh in on such a massive decision with less information, and within a shorter timeframe in which to do it?” Newell asked. “We don’t have information other than maps that show where the parcels are located. It’s an effort by the BLM to cut the public out of the leasing process.”

SUWA plans to keep a close eye on which parcels will ultimately be offered, Newell said.

“If appropriate, we will challenge that decision,” he said. “It’s obvious that the BLM is proceeding as if oil and gas takes precedence over all other uses. That’s not correct.”

A SUWA news release stated that there were approximately 2.5 million acres of federal public land in Utah leased for oil and gas development at the close of BLM’s 2017 fiscal year. Only 45 percent of the leased land in Utah is currently being developed.

“That’s how the system works,” Sgamma said, when asked why the BLM is offering additional parcels when the lands already leased are not being developed.

There are a variety of reasons why a company may decide not to develop an area after it has procured a lease, Sgamma said.

“Just because someone has a lease and they’re not using it, doesn’t preclude someone else from trying to attain a lease,” Sgamma said. “It’s merely a right to potentially develop oil and gas.”

For more information regarding the parcel list and maps, or to submit a comment, visit go.usa.gov/xUWdx.

July 31 is comment cutoff for largest auction in a decade; Zinke eliminated initial comment period

“How is the public to weigh in on such a massive decision with less information, and within a shorter timeframe in which to do it? We don’t have information other than maps that show where the parcels are located. It’s an effort by the BLM to cut the public out of the leasing process.”