CLIMATE:

BLM suspends some lease sales to review warming impacts

The Bureau of Land Management yesterday delayed all oil and gas lease sales in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota while the agency studies their potential impact on climate change.

The next sale had been scheduled for April 13 and included about 91,000 acres. Sales had also been planned for June and August. BLM's Montana office said it decided to delay those sales "in order to bring more certainty to industry and in light of expected litigation."

The decision comes in the wake of a settlement BLM signed last month suspending 61 oil and gas leases on nearly 38,000 acres in Montana the agency sold in 2008 until it considers the greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production.

"Since we agreed to conduct additional environmental reviews on the 2008 leases, it only makes sense to complete additional environmental reviews before we offer new acreage for leasing," BLM Montana State Director Gene Terland said in a statement.

The lease sales will be postponed while the agency completes reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. BLM said the extra reviews will allow it to provide assurances to industry so it can move forward with greater certainty in leasing parcels and developing oil and gas resources.

Mary Apple, spokeswoman for the BLM Montana office, said the agency is hoping to complete the reviews by "early fall" and that the lease sales will not be rescheduled until they are finished. The agency has not yet determined how it will carry out the reviews, she added, but they may be based on geographic areas and likely will examine emissions and traffic among other issues.

"It's kind of like eating the elephant one bite at a time," she said.

Two weeks ago, the Western Environmental Law Center filed a protest against the planned April 13 lease sale on behalf of three environmental groups -- the Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project and WildEarth Guardians. The groups noted that last month's settlement covered the 2008 leases but did not resolve climate change concerns with future lease sales.

"We would therefore advise BLM to address this issue comprehensively and, hopefully, conclusively before proceeding with this lease sale and future lease sales," the protest said. "This is the best way to ensure that oil and gas leasing and development in the region accounts for climate change and proceeds in a responsible, balanced fashion."

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich of the Western Environmental Law Center said the groups particularly want BLM to require the use of a host of technology and practices that can reduce leaks of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, during production and transmission of natural gas on public lands. He said the review will have almost no impact on energy production but is simply taking a step back to ensure due diligence.

"We're not trying to stop the oil and gas leasing process," he said. "What we're trying to do is make sure it's conducted responsibly."

Last month's agreement settled a lawsuit by the groups charging that BLM in its resource management plans failed to consider how development of the leases, most of which are located in areas of coalbed methane and conventional natural gas development, would contribute to warming of the atmosphere. BLM will have the authority to terminate leases that fail to meet environmental criteria set by the agency (Land Letter, March 18).

The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States intervened in that case on behalf of the lease owners but was not involved in the settlement talks between BLM and environmental groups, said Kathleen Sgamma, the group's director of government affairs.

Sgamma said BLM told her it will do the additional reviews over the next six months, which she called "a very reasonable time to do that type of analysis," and that the agency will be able to hold lease sales by the end of the year.

"Obviously we're disappointed that the sales need to be postponed but very encouraged that the corrective NEPA for the 2008 sales as well as the 2010 sales will be done in a timely manner," she said. "We're very encouraged they have a plan to continue leasing in 2010."

A separate lawsuit challenging BLM's failure to address climate change concerns in New Mexico remains pending.

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