Craig Despite protests from Moffat County, the Bureau of Land Management will not issue new mineral leases on lands in high and medium priority sagebrush habitat in Northwest Colorado.
State BLM Director Sally Wisely wrote a letter to the Moffat County Commission late last week explaining her decision after local officials sent her a protest letter in January.
The commission's appeal did not fall on deaf ears, Wisely wrote, but it also did not change her mind.
The BLM Little Snake Field Office - which is based in Craig and oversees lands in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties - will continue to defer all new leases for minerals in high and medium priority sagebrush habitat until the agency finalizes the new Little Snake Resource Management Plan.
No companies can lease those lands for energy development until the Management Plan's approval, scheduled for February 2010.
The BLM has several obligations in the matter, agency officials said.
It must fulfill its obligation to the land by protecting the environment and wildlife as much as possible, they said, and listen to all sides and work with each of the cooperating agencies.
New information surfaced regarding the impact of oil and gas development on sage-grouse - a native species currently under federal review for an endangered species listing - while the BLM developed a new Little Snake Management Plan, Wisely wrote.
"These recent sage-grouse studies show that the birds are being impacted by gas development more than previously anticipated," Wisely wrote.
The Little Snake Office's current management practices do not allow the agency to adequately protect the birds, and so leases must be deferred until new regulations are implemented, she said.
County Commissioner Tom Gray said the BLM's practice is detrimental to the local, state and federal economies, as well as harmful to the national goal of becoming energy independent.
Unfortunately, it appears to be part of a pattern, he added.
Besides the BLM's decision in Moffat County, Gray said the U.S. Interior Department "shut down" existing leases in Utah and the state of Colorado issued new, more restrictive energy development regulations in 2008.
"All that's going on, and meanwhile, we're losing jobs," he said. "These are jobs that our private sector creates. : I'm upset (the country is) going into debt to create government jobs when jobs are leaving our county because of the government."
According to BLM records, the agency has deferred leases on a total of 46,726 acres in Moffat County since May 2008.
However, there are 1 million acres currently leased in Moffat County, BLM spokesperson David Boyd said.
He added the agency has no intention to stop development in Northwest Colorado.
"It's not that these lands won't ever be leased," Boyd said. "We're waiting for the (Management Plan) to be finalized. Once that happens, every deferred lease will be open under the stipulations of the new plan."
County officials said they worry about economic damage caused now, a time when the national economy is on a downhill slide.
Jeff Comstock, county Natural Resources Department director, said a single oil and gas well can be a significant economic boon to a local community like Moffat County.
He said state data on average well statistics shows that each one can cost between $850,000 and $1.5 million to build, and each also has an average of 44 workers attached to it - some through associated industries such as water hauling - who make an average of $44,000 a year.
It's unfortunate that an industry with those kinds of jobs is slowing down, Comstock said.
The county received almost half as many drilling applications in 2008 as it did in 2007, which he said is generally the best indicator for development activity because it shows what companies plan for the next year.
County officials added they agree with the BLM's position on protecting sage-grouse, but they feel now is not a good time to sacrifice jobs, especially when the BLM has an existing Management Plan to work with.
However, the BLM cannot move forward with leases based on science now known to be false, agency spokesperson Steven Hall said.
It also cannot require anything of companies outside of what's in an existing Management Plan, he said. Until the new plan comes out, there is no way the agency can ensure it fulfills its obligations.
Gray said that may be true, but the BLM can only defer leases temporarily, and, in his mind, a two-year "moratorium" does not meet that definition.
The BLM does not have an internal guideline on what "temporary" means, Hall said, but it is not the agency's goal to stop energy development in Moffat County.
"There are always controversies with these plans," he said. "We've been accused (by the environmental community) that we're moving too fast. We all share the same goal, which is to have the updated (Management Plan) done as soon as possible."