The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages 245 million acres in the West, promised earlier this year to seek more public input on environmental reviews that often precede controversial oil and natural gas leasing decisions but some green groups say they are still waiting for change.
The Government Accountability Office recently criticized BLM for failing make public the protests that are lodged against the agency’s leasing decisions by environmental groups, local residents, and companies. The BLM doesn’t keep detailed records about the protests, which makes it difficult to determine to track their impact on leasing decisions, the GAO said.
“They are absolutely not doing a good job,” said Eric Schlenker-Goodrich, lead lawyer at the Western Environmental Law Center. Schlenker-Goodrich explained his center’s challenge to the bureau after BLM revised environmental assessments on land in New Mexico before getting public input. It was clear that they were changed because of Amigos Bravos’ protest in April, the environmental group the center is representing for this case, but Amigos Bravos was not included in the preparation of the new EAs.
The law center submitted their own formal protest in April for land in Montana, which called for the agency to withdraw the sale, and is currently the only one available on BLM’s website for Montana and the Dakotas. The sale was postponed until additional environmental reviews were completed, as with the June and August sales.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in May proposed reforms for the BLM. But descriptions of some planned changes were vague, such as the promise that field offices will ensure greater public involvement for BLM’s master leasing plans, which are drawn up before land is offered for oil and gas leasing.
“State and field offices will provide for public participation as part of the review of parcels identified for potential leasing through the NEPA documentation compliance process,” BLM Director Bob Abbey instructed field offices in a May memo. He added that websites and email lists would be created to keep interested groups and individuals informed of how field offices proceed.
As part of the oil and gas leasing process, the BLM said that its field offices will prepare an environmental review document to evaluate existing, revised, and/or new stipulations. “The public will be invited to review and comment on the draft document,” it said. Schlenker-Goodrich asserts that in his case, BLM did not seek public comment.
A BLM spokesman was not available for comment.
BLM has been doing better in some states, according to green groups.
“There are strong differences from region to region,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. The alliance recently protested an August auction on parcels of land in Wyoming because the land included the sensitive habitat of sage grouse. As a result, 83,587 acres of land were withdrawn from the sale. Both the protest letter and Wyoming lease information are online.
Molvar said that BLM has improved its transparency with Wyoming land parcels. “For many years, you couldn’t get any information,” he said. “You’d put in FOIA requests, and even then you wouldn’t get much. But there’s a big improvement, where now the public can see parcels of land where they’re located on the map.”
ABOUT THE DATA
What: Details about onshore lease protests.
Where: Bureau of Land Management
Availability: Some information is on BLM’s website, but it is not available in a timely format.
Usability: The information that is available is organized, by region, and easy to navigate.
The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.