The Bureau of Land Management has revised an Obama-era policy directing agency field offices to prioritize oil and natural gas leasing and drilling projects outside of the most sensitive greater sage grouse habitat.
The instruction memorandum (IM), issued last week to little fanfare, states that BLM "does not need to lease and develop outside of [grouse] habitat management areas before considering any leasing and development within [grouse] habitat."
It is one of six IMs issued last week to BLM field offices across the West addressing key aspects of the federal grouse conservation plans that were finalized in 2015. The others deal primarily with livestock grazing and adaptive management measures.
But the oil and gas IM is the most substantive and potentially impactful for grouse habitat and clearly advances a top goal of the Trump administration to increase fossil fuel development on federal lands.
The IMs dovetail with ongoing efforts by the Interior Department to possibly make substantial changes to the plans covering nearly 70 million federal acres in 10 Western states. BLM is expected early this year to decide whether to initiate a yearslong effort to formally amend the plans.
The oil and gas IM — signed by Robert Jolley, Interior's acting assistant director for energy, minerals and realty management — replaces a September 2016 IM that "encouraged" BLM field offices "to work collaboratively with relevant state and federal agencies as well as stakeholders to develop strategies and incentives to encourage and prioritize leasing and development outside of [grouse] habitats."
It established a "sequential prioritization" process that called for first focusing oil and gas leasing outside of grouse habitat "in order to minimize further fragmentation and impacts to [grouse] habitat or populations."
The new IM, however, clarifies that to say "parcels may be leased within [grouse] habitat management areas without first leasing parcels in non-habitat areas."
It also states that oil and gas leases issued in grouse habitat prior to the implementation of the federal plans can proceed with "reasonable and appropriate site-specific mitigation as conditions of approval."
If these leases are in areas with "no surface occupancy" stipulations, the IM states that BLM will "work cooperatively with the operator and respective stakeholders to find a location with the least impact to [grouse] and other resources, to the greatest extent possible."
The new IM also makes clear that the agency still considers grouse habitat preservation a priority. For example, when the industry submits so-called expressions of interest for specific parcels to be leased, "the BLM will prioritize its work first in non-habitat management areas, followed by lower priority habitat management areas."
The goal of the new IMs is clarity, according to BLM. They were done in coordination with states and other stakeholders in response to concerns about the impacts of the federal grouse conservation plans, the agency said.
The IMs take effect immediately and will remain BLM policy through September 2021.
"The updated policies are in response to concerns raised by the states, local partners and our own field staff," Brian Steed, BLM's deputy director for programs and policy, said in a statement.
"They were developed from the ground up with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity," he added.
The move is likely to draw cheers from the oil and gas industry, which has long argued that the federal grouse conservation plans unnecessarily restrict energy development.
Officials with the Western Energy Alliance could not be reached for comment.
But the oil and gas IM drew sharp criticism from conservation groups, who say it is the latest effort to dismantle Obama plans that took years to develop and were strong enough to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
They note that the Obama administration drew the boundaries of the priority and general grouse habitat areas to exclude regions with high or moderate oil and natural gas development potential.
"BLM's new guidance essentially turns the intent of these plans upside down, removing direction that would protect habitat and instead emphasizing how to permit leasing and development, regardless of the importance of the habitat at risk," Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center, said in an emailed statement.
Culver also questioned why BLM issued the IMs to agency staff while it is still analyzing tens of thousands of public comments it received after reopening the federal plans last year (Greenwire, Dec. 12, 2017).
The Forest Service has also reopened the plans on national forestlands, with the public comment period lasting through Friday.
Culver said that "issuing guidance that will be in effect for three years while ostensibly seeking input on whether and how to revise the governing plans and policies reinforces the message that the concerns of the public, scientists and other stakeholders with weakening these plans will be disregarded."
A separate IM — dealing with conditions in grouse habitat that "trigger" adaptive management measures to be implemented — removes a public notification requirement.
Such a situation occurred early last year, when an isolated group of sage grouse in northwest Utah suffered what BLM called a "serious decline" in population. As a result, BLM announced that the dwindling counts had set off "monitoring triggers" mandating implementation of adaptive management measures called for in the federal plans (E&E News PM, Feb. 6, 2017).
The new IM, however, removes the requirement for public notification in the form of a "news release."
As for livestock grazing, another IM deals with previous policy issued last year that calls for prioritizing the review of grazing allotments within sage grouse habitat.
The new IM instead prioritizes evaluating grazing allotments that don't meet federal "land health standards" or that have not been evaluated for compliance with the standards.
"This policy is intended to ensure that land health considerations are the primary basis for prioritizing the processing of grazing permits and leases, monitoring the effectiveness of grazing management, and making progress toward achieving land health standards," it states.
By managing for land health standards, the IM says, BLM can "provide for the long-term sustainability of rangelands for livestock grazing, wildlife habitats, and other uses."
Click here to read all six IMs issued last week.