4 minutes reading time (799 words)

Weighing the Scales: Master Leasing Plan Aims to Balance Oil, Natural Gas and Mining with Conservation of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Internationally known for rugged landscapes and stunning views, the treasured Arches and Canyonlands National Parks now have a plan, that is, a Master Leasing Plan.  

The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) introduced the concept of Master Leasing Plans (“MLPs”) as part of a suite of federal onshore oil and gas leasing reforms rolled out by Secretary Salazar in early 2010.  The MLP’s intended purpose is to harmonize competing resources, i.e., the balancing of oil and gas development with conservation of natural and cultural resources.  MLPs provide BLM with an additional land use planning tool, allowing it to amend a governing resource management plan (“RMP”) to include new terms and conditions imposed by the MLP.  The goal, but not necessarily the reality, is to reduce risk of litigation and community protests over oil and gas leasing by enlisting early stakeholder input about where energy development is appropriate and how to protect other resources.

According to BLM, the purpose of an MLP is to allow for “more in depth review” of areas that are or may be opened to oil and gas leasing than would typically be found in the governing RMP.  Under the framework, BLM can designate certain areas of public lands located as “sensitive landscapes,” or areas containing a “high level of potential resource concerns” as MLP areas. The MLP area is then analyzed on a landscape level, where competing resource values are evaluated. The result is a comprehensive plan for long term oil and gas development in the area, rather than the straightforward designation of “open,” “closed,” or “open with stipulations” as typically found in RMPs.  Because amendments to RMPs must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the MLP analysis and review first takes the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) or an Environmental Analysis (“EA”), the final version of which then modifies the relevant RMP.

In a Record of Decision (“ROD”) signed December 15, 2016, BLM Utah State Director Ed Roberson finalized the multi-year NEPA effort to complete the Moab Master Leasing Plan, the first MLP to be approved in the state.  The agency expressed confidence that the plan “will guide responsible mineral development . . . while also protecting important natural resources, iconic scenery, and recreational opportunities.”

The Moab MLP identifies where oil, gas and minerals development will be allowed within the 785,000-acre planning area.  Notably, the Moab MLP applies only to new leases and aims to provide certainty by informing the oil and gas and mining industries about where development can occur in a region dotted with Native American cultural sites, popular hiking trails, spires, mesas, natural bridges and arches that draw over 2 million visitors a year.

The Moab MLP also closes 145,000 acres of BLM lands near the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to future mineral leasing, caps well densities on projects in sensitive areas, and places “no surface occupancy” restrictions on about 306,000 acres “that are highly valued for scenery and recreation.”

According to Secretary Jewell, “This plan takes a landscape-level approach to balancing the protection of the iconic scenery in and around Moab with access to the rich energy resources found there.”

Expectedly, conservation groups enthusiastically embrace MLPs as adding what they view as a necessary layer of environmental analysis focused on issues related to oil and gas development and trust that the MLP process is an appropriate addition to BLM’s toolbox.  In response to the announced Moab ROD, conservationists appear to appreciate a planned vision of where energy development can be managed and where other values, like wilderness and recreation, need to be protected.  

By contrast, industry believes that by restricting access to the region’s mineral resources through the Moab MLP, the negative consequence will be $2 billion in lost economic opportunity for surrounding local communities.  Industry estimates that the Moab MLP planning area contains 145 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 32.5 million barrels of recoverable oil.  Industry has serious concerns that BLM has departed from its Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976’s multiple use mandate--whereby many uses co-exist, from ranching to energy to recreation on public lands--to managing for a single “use,” preservation. 

Although the Moab plan can be legally challenged, it cannot be undone by the stroke of the presidential pen alone.  

BLM approved, or is or in the process of developing, more than a dozen MLPs across millions of acres of public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.  In fact, on December 20, 2016 BLM announced its formal commitment to develop a southwestern Colorado MLP for about 71,000 acres in La Plata and Montezuma counties, including parcels near Yucca House National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. 

For additional background on MLPs, see the firm’s 2014 blog post: So what is a Master Leasing Plan anyway?

 

Amended BLM Right Of Way Regulations
Wyoming Supreme Court Justices Disagree: An Unusua...