CASPER — Scoping is over for the first oil and gas lease sale since December.
After a federal judge ended the Biden administration’s indefinite pause on new oil and gas leasing earlier this summer, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it would resume onshore lease sales in 2022.
The agency published its complete list of nominated lands on Aug. 31, and initiated a public scoping period that lasted from Sept. 1–Oct. 1. It has not yet set a date for the sale.
Of the proposed leases, the majority — 459 — are located in Wyoming. All of the Wyoming parcels were requested for leasing by oil and gas operators, ahead of the canceled sales in March and June of last year, and had not yet passed the agency’s environmental review.
The BLM is legally obligated to hold lease sales once every quarter, as long as there are parcels available to lease, said Courtney Whiteman, public affairs specialist for the agency’s Wyoming state office. It’s up to the agency to decide what’s available.
“That’s kind of where the clinch point of this whole situation is,” Whiteman said. “We have these parcels that were nominated. We have put a pause on leasing for the whole year so far, saying, ‘Well, are these parcels available to lease? Or do we need to do more analysis before deciding that?’”
In June, a U.S. district judge ruled that the Biden administration didn’t have the authority to suspend leasing indefinitely, and mandated that the BLM resume quarterly sales of available leases.
The judge didn’t specify how many leases had to be sold. And while the agency has considerable discretion over its lease offerings, leading many to speculate that it might limit the 2022 sale to a handful of leases, it still has to justify its reasoning.
“The decision needs to be backed up by science, by facts, and be appropriately explained,” Whiteman said. “We can’t make a decision to offer a parcel, or to not offer a parcel, without a solid reasoning for why we’re doing that.”
Now that the scoping period has closed, the BLM will consider the initial public comment as it completes environmental assessments for each of the parcels. It will then issue preliminary recommendations, and open a second public comment period, before publicizing a notice of sale for the 2022 auction.
The agency won’t know how many of the nominated leases are likely to make it to auction until the environmental assessments are complete, Whiteman said.
Many conservation groups, however, aren’t convinced that the BLM’s process is thorough enough.
On the final day of the scoping period, 13 conservation organizations submitted a joint public comment calling for all of the proposed leases to be deferred pending further environmental review, including a comprehensive analysis of the climate impacts of federal oil and gas leasing.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, if an environmental assessment finds that a project will have significant impacts, a much more exhaustive analysis must be completed. The 78-page filing argues that the BLM should use its discretionary authority to pursue that additional study.
“It’s our feeling that if and when such an adequate review occurs, the inevitable conclusion is that continuing business as usual, and leasing more public land for oil and gas development, is not justifiable,” said Michael Saul, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 13 groups challenging the current review process.
The groups objecting to the current plan are concerned about the impacts of leasing on wildlife, groundwater and air quality. But climate is their biggest worry. According to Saul, it’s too late to rely on incremental changes to the program, and an extensive review of its impacts can’t come quickly enough.
“None of these leases can be on sound legal footing unless and until there’s a systematic and comprehensive evaluation of the emissions consequences of the entire program,” he said.
It’s a stance that frustrates the industry. Many oil and gas producers view the leasing program as a pillar of the U.S. economy, especially in Wyoming, where nearly half the state is federally owned and operators rely on BLM leases.
“The economy is still heavily reliant on oil and natural gas, and therefore, if we continue to push forward with efforts to limit production on federal lands, all that will do is shift production overseas,” said Ryan McConnaughey, communications director for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Though many operators own drilling rights for numerous undeveloped leases, McConnaughey said those stockpiles aren’t enough to meet continuing demand.
The persistent uncertainty is a concern for those on all sides of the debate. But with the nomination of parcels hardly more than a formality, the BLM’s leasing plans will remain elusive for now.