Conservation Colorado: The tightrope of public lands management
It’s not often when you find a conservationist seeking out the opportunity to defend a plan that proposes the drilling of over 15,000 oil and gas wells.
But that is what I’m going to try to do.
I’m going to defend the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) White River Field Office (WRFO) Oil and Gas Amendment partly because it is a vast improvement over previous draft iterations as well as the fact that the folks at the White River Field Office developed a plan that actually tries to achieve balance. I’m doing it partly because some folks aren’t happy that it does try to strike balance. I’m also doing it to try and set the record straight after some of my previous comments on the plan were taken out of context. But first some background is needed.
On March 27, the BLM’s White River Field Office released a proposed final plan for its Oil and Gas Amendment. This Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) planning process started nine years ago in response to increased interest from oil and gas companies due to skyrocketing market prices and a presidential administration that catered to the industry.
Then, as soon as the boom was reaching its peak in 2008, the bust brought everything crashing down. The $12 per million BTU for natural gas became $8, then $7 then $6 and so forth, bringing us to today’s prices, which are below $3 per million BTU. While the bust obviously brought hardship to local economies and communities across the nation, it did also provide a moment of perspective and pause that enabled all levels of government to reevaluate how to implement plans and safeguards for the next boom.
For the WRFO plan this meant conducting a robust air quality monitoring and modeling program that forecasts what the impacts of 15,000 wells will be for northwest Colorado. This has allowed for a level of analysis and transparency not often seen in BLM development plans and is critical to understanding the full picture of the impacts of the proposed decision. That’s great. The actual findings are less great, for example, the level of projected Co2 emissions at over 4.1 million metric tons annually for the plan is more than the typical coal-fired power plant. Add in other particulates and pollutants generated from oil and gas development and production and it is concerning.
However, air quality is just one of the many resources and values that come into conflict with a 15,000 well development plan. BLM clearly recognized the need to try and achieve some degree of balance, despite how heavily weighted it was to the side of development.
The agency has proposed a Master Leasing Plan (MLP) for an area south of Dinosaur National Monument that will provide some level of certainty regarding how future leasing and development will occur in the area, attempting to alleviate concerns regarding the impacts to Dinosaur National Monument and the wildlife and wildlands in the area. The proposed use of phased leasing and master development plans in the Dinosaur Trails MLP are critical in allowing BLM to shape how development can occur while ensuring that conflicts with other resource and values can be avoided or mitigated.
Additionally, the WRFO recognized that with the intensive development proposed for nearly 600,000 acres of the field office that some areas needed to be managed for their conservation values in addition to their oil and gas potential. The proposed use of a tiered system for lands with wilderness character that would provide protection for over 100,000 acres of public lands that are still relatively wild makes a great deal of sense.
The fact that the WRFO recognizes that wilderness character is a resource to be managed just like any other resource in an oil and gas amendment when far too many other BLM offices fail to acknowledge it in full plan revisions is nearly astounding.
It’s hard to envision another 15,000 wells in the Piceance Basin as we’ve never seen development at that scale, in Colorado, ever. It’s hard to imagine that that level of development won’t have detrimental effects on our wildlife and other resources. It’s hard to see any management decisions being able to create a level of balance with industrial development of that scope and scale.
However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize the work that BLM did in trying to achieve balance and trying to ensure that Northwest Colorado doesn’t just become another sacrifice zone. The employees of the BLM live and work here like the rest of us and want it to be a great place not just tomorrow, but twenty years from now.
So, while conservationists are certainly not jumping for joy over the proposed plan we appreciate that BLM thought outside the box and at least tried to achieve the ever elusive balance between conservation and development we all want on our public lands.
Luke Schafer is the West Slope Advocacy Director for Conservation Colorado. His office is in Craig.
The deadline to vote is Monday, May 20.