The Bureau of Land Management proposed Thursday removing more than a million acres of public lands in Colorado from future oil and gas leasing, while also designating tens of thousands of acres of new protected areas in the western part of the state as part of an effort to resolve a series of legal challenges from environmental groups.
The proposal, outlined in a draft resource management plan and draft supplemental environmental impact statement, would establish nine formally designated “Areas of Critical Environmental Concern” (ACECs) on more than 100,000 acres of BLM lands.
An oil and gas industry trade group official blasted the proposal.
Set to be formally published in the Federal Register on Friday, the proposal involves BLM lands and subsurface mineral estate in the Colorado River Valley and the Grand Junction field offices that stretch across seven counties.
The revisions BLM identified as its “preferred alternative” would bar new oil and gas leasing across roughly 1.6 million acres, slashing the likely number of oil wells over the next 20 years by nearly 600 wells.
BLM says in the draft proposal it would bar industry access to lands with “no-known, low or medium” oil potential, as well as to acres that are striking for their wildlife, conservation or wilderness values.
In practice, that would mean closing 80 percent of the lands in the decision area managed by the Colorado River Valley Field Office to new oil leasing and 81 percent of the Grand Junction Field Office’s lands.
The proposal is a significant reversal of the status quo. Under current resource management plans (RMPs), 87 percent of the decision area in the Colorado River Valley Field Office is technically available for oil and gas auctions, though BLM says just 22 percent of that is considered high potential for oil development.
Similarly, the Grand Junction Field Office decision area is mostly open to oil and gas under the current RMP, with just under half — 43 percent — considered high oil and gas potential, according to BLM.
The bureau’s preferred revision — alternative E in the draft supplemental EIS — would keep 93 percent of the Colorado River Valley Field Office’s high oil and gas potential lands open to leasing. But in the Grand Junction Field Office, the preferred alternative would be more restrictive, allowing only about 44 percent of the high oil potential area open to new oil auctions.
BLM estimates the result would be 541 fewer wells in the Grand Junction Field Office over the next two decades.
It also would establish nine ACECs, including a 24,600-acre one in the Colorado River Valley Field Office that’s designed to protect the greater sage grouse.
There are eight other proposed ACECs in the Grand Junction Field Office plan, including one covering 27,200 acres to protect the Gunnison sage grouse found only in portions of Colorado and Utah. There’s also a proposed 28,200-acre ACEC designed to “protect rare plants, wildlife habitat, and scenic values.”
“This new analysis will ensure the BLM’s management of these areas will best serve our multiple use mission for the future,” said Upper Colorado River District Manager Greg Larson in a statement.
But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said the proposed plan is aimed at removing oil and gas development from BLM lands, and “will stop responsible energy development and other productive uses of the land.”
Sgamma also said BLM’s move in Colorado should be considered in concert with a public lands rule the bureau is working to finalize by year’s end that would “incorporate climate resiliency and restoration through conservation” into managing the 245 million acres the bureau oversees.
One of the key aspects of the draft rule, which BLM unveiled in March, is an emphasis on protecting rangelands through the identification and designation of more ACECs on bureau lands. ACECs are designations of BLM lands determined to be critical to the health of specific plants and animals, or historical and cultural resources and scenic values, and are managed to protect those resources.
Congressional Republicans have argued that this and other aspects of the plan are a veiled attempt by the Biden administration to remove millions of acres from public use in the name of conservation.
“As with the proposed rule, which BLM hasn’t even finalized yet, the intent of expanding the use of ACECs is to turn BLM’s multiple-use lands into preservation-only zones that lock out productive uses that otherwise create jobs; sustain rural communities such as those on the West Slope; and provide the nation with food, fuel, and fiber,” Sgamma said.
A 90-day public comment period on the proposal will run through Nov. 1.
BLM’s proposal is associated with lawsuits from environmentalists challenging separate revisions to lands managed by the Colorado River Valley and the Grand Junction field offices.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado had ruled in 2019 that BLM had failed to consider indirect emissions and alternatives to leasing in a 2015 resource management plan for the Colorado River Valley Field Office.
Because the revised Grand Junction RMP is similar to the Colorado River Valley RMP, and was being challenged by the Wilderness Workshop for many of the same reasons, BLM asked the court to allow it to revisit the two land use plans and conduct supplements that would address the legal issues.
Senior Judge Robert Blackburn, a George W. Bush appointee, approved the request in 2021.
The same coalition of environmental groups led by the Wilderness Workshop challenged BLM’s approval of oil and gas leases from separate auctions in 2016 and 2017 in the same federal court.
BLM agreed in a 2021 settlement to that case to pause development on 53 leased parcels covering 45,000 acres of public lands until after it completed the supplemental EISs for the Colorado River Valley and the Grand Junction resource management plans.
Will Roush, the executive director of Wilderness Workshop, praised the proposed RMP revisions.
“I’m very encouraged to see BLM listening closely to local communities who have been asking for more than a decade for the agency to protect wildlands, wildlife, water and our climate,” Roush said in an emailed statement. “This planning area contains some of our state’s most important wildlife habitat, treasured recreation areas, wildlands that should be protected for future generations, critical water resources, famed Colorado scenery and Indigenous cultural sites.”
Though a result of court settlements, BLM’s suggested revamp of the Colorado management plans echoes the White House’s broader strategy to overhaul the federal oil program with tougher limits on where drillers can drill and how much they pay for that oil and gas development.
One key provision of that strategy is limiting leasing to areas where BLM anticipates the potential to strike oil is high, while restricting new leasing on lands they believe have a lower potential for hydrocarbons and should be prioritized for recreation, wildlife and similar conservation values.
Industry has already chafed at this approach, arguing that the federal agency is not well-positioned to know where oil and gas could be located — as well as stating their importance to national energy production and their ability to drill with minimal impacts on the surface due to modern technology.
Still, BLM released a draft rule last month that in addition to raising royalty rates and bonding would codify its oil strategy for future oil auctions. In further entrenching that approach into local management plans, the administration would be helping to future proof its oil and gas restrictions on public lands in case a later presidential administration seeks to expand oil and gas access by revoking Biden-era rules.
While President Joe Biden’s campaign-era promise to end federal drilling on public lands was swiftly beset by legal restrictions, the Interior Department has taken a much stricter approach to drilling, pushed for greater revenues from drillers and aimed to reduce its footprint, and carbon contribution, over time by offering industry less land for sale.
One of the primary explanations BLM offers for reducing oil and gas access is to protect specific cultural and Native American sites from drilling, roads and pipelines that could damage them, reflecting their larger stated goal of increasing tribal consultation and answering a long-standing complaint of Native American leaders.
In the Colorado River Valley Field Office, BLM said 1,200 known cultural properties would be protected by its proposed new oil and gas restrictions, hundreds of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
In the Grand Junction Field Office area, BLM said it could remove 140,022 acres from potential oil leasing in areas that tribes have identified as significant.
In any case, oil and gas leases that do go forward would continue to have numerous stipulations to reduce impacts to cultural properties and wildlife habitats for species like the threatened greater sage grouse, including “no surface occupancy” in some areas.
The supplemental environmental review published Thursday also considers a more stringent option to restrict oil and gas leasing that the bureau is asking for public input on.
That alternative — not currently BLM’s preferred route forward — would keep just 16 percent of the high potential oil and gas areas open to leasing in the Colorado River Valley Field Office and 12 percent of the high potential lands open to leasing in the Grand Junction Field Office.