BLM State Office Spins Fiction, Flubs North Fork P.R. Tour

with a few small edits, 2/1

The letter in the Montrose Daily Press doesn't mince words in firing back at the misleading article that had appeared in its pages a few days before: BLM using divisive tactics.

Or in the Delta County Independent:

Having lived with the devastation of gas development in Garfield County, we found that there were a number of misleading statements made by the BLM staff in the meeting with the Hotchkiss Town Council. Without comment from the public, especially from those of us who have directly experienced the impacts, there was no opportunity to address these misleading statements and expose the BLM's inadequate administration of our public lands.

Unfortunately, this dog and pony show is what can be expected of the BLM. The information was worse than useless. It was not only late, it was misleading.

One problem being noted is that the BLM in Colorado appears to be confusing coal mining and oil and gas leasing, in what many locals view as a clumsy but purposeful attempt to divide a pretty unified community in the North Fork, renowned for both its top-quality Colorado agricultural goods—wine, organic produce, cheese and juices—and its coal mines.  As one letter notes:

… the BLM has stooped to a new all-time low by attempting to try to divide the community and create some support for gas development. Shannon Borders, public affairs officer for the BLM's Uncompahgre Field Office, recently told the Montrose Daily Press that if they removed all of the parcels from the lease sale it would affect all mineral development, such as coal, in the North Fork Valley. This is a blatant lie. It appears that Ms. Borders has not read her own agency's analysis of the "No Action Alternative" in the Environmental Assessment. This analysis reveals that if the oil and gas lease sale does not take place there would be no impact whatsoever on coal mining in the valley.

An attempt that, on the part of a public land agency, many also find disturbing and unacceptable as another letter in the Grand Junction Sentinel spells out:

Fabricating social frictions is a sign of desperation and makes me wonder what underlies the BLM's agenda here. Why the mad press to lease? Helen Hankins, the state BLM director, stated that the rush to drill is all about energy independence. A nice sound bite to be sure, but unfortunately still a lie, one designed to tap into patriotic feelings of social sacrifice in service of country. If only it were accurate. At this moment, there are plans to develop 16 massive liquid natural gas terminals on our coasts to ship our gas to ports overseas for use by other nations in advancement of their own economies.

More unfortunate still, the BLM Colorado Office’s misleading statements are not limited to this one ‘desperate’ example.  There seems to be a pattern. 

So far the limited oil and gas activity in the North Fork (aside from some couple of wildcat wells put in way back when) has occurred a distance up the canyon, generally on Forest Service or private lands.  But in this lease sale, the BLM lands in question lie right at the heart the valley, surrounding schools, towns, businesses, farms, wineries, ranches and orchards.  None of which were ever considered in the land use plan that the BLM is now claiming contains all its relevant, base-level and cumulative analysis.  

A large and broad segment of the North Fork has been resisting the Colorado BLM's attempt to use its long-outdated 1980s land use plan to lease these heavily utilized, close-in public lands today. The Colorado State Office of BLM, for its part, has not been playing the arbitrator of the dozens of filed protests, but staunch defender of its 1980s land use plan, while being busy trying to portray the bucolic North Fork as just another energy zone rife for exploitation.  Its state-level communications staff calling leasing opponents a bunch of hippie ‘herbal tea' sipping NIMBYs (to paraphrase). 

This all seems to point to the Colorado BLM's confounding confusion about its actual mission in managing the public's lands. 

For instance State Director Hankins has claimed

“The first goal of the Department of Interior is to work towards energy independence.”   

But that's not what the Department of Interior claims, on its website, in a section entitled “Our Mission: Protecting America’s Great Outdoors and Powering Our Future”

The US Department of the Interior protects America’s natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities, and supplies the energy to power our future.

Nor is it the BLM's mission to just follow whatever the land use plan says regardless of how out-of-date and inadequate it is to the current task at hand.  Indeed, it is the agency's mission to ensure it is not doing such a thing. 

The BLM’s current oil and gas leasing policy [Instruction Memorandum No. 2010-117] states that

“[a]s a land management agency with a multiple-use mission, the BLM will make land use decisions that sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The BLM recognizes that, in some cases, leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values. . . . Under applicable laws and policies, there is no presumed preference for oil and gas development over other uses.” 

And the Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires the BLM, an agency within the Department of Interior, to manage the public lands in accordance with “principles of multiple use and sustained yield . . . .”  43 U.S.C. § 1712(c)(1), defining "Multiple use", in part, as:

“a combination of balanced and diverse resource uses that takes into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources, including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values. . . .”  Id. § 1702(c).

So back to the biomass being peddled by the Colorado BLM, and its not-so-clever attempts to dodge the fact that it has no 'mandate' to lease these lands in the North Fork.  It is a fiction being spun to justify an action the Colorado State Office has now apparently decided it must defend with dubious means.  And for the rest of Hankins' claim?  Also untethered from reality. 

Leasing the North Fork will do nothing for America's 'energy independence.'  Saying such is ridiculous.  As natural gas sits glutted on the market, the latest industry lobbying push (in addition to stopping fracking regulations, fighting set backs for schools and houses, and weakening water testing requirements) is for energy exports—to China and India and other markets.  The likely effect of this push to turn natural gas into a global commodity is not only American energy going to economic competitors, but higher consumer prices for citizens here, as natural gas prices ‘stabilize.’ 

There is no great ‘need’ pushing the BLM to lease these lands now, and every reason not to: a decades-old land use plan and a revision to that plan now underway.  That is what a huge number of public land stakeholders, government agencies and the public have been saying for well over a year now since the proposal first surfaced in December 2011. But it is only recently that Director Hankins and the BLM have even been out to defend the Colorado BLM's rigid position that such a fictional mandate exists, touring the North Fork recently to call locals ‘inflexible,' presumably for not agreeing it is so.

The occasion for the visit was a rather disastrous tour to local Town Councils, where the public was forbade to speak to its visiting public employees, but was allowed the graciousness of observing. I hear not quietly as seen on this You Tube clip of all one hour and 45 minutes before the Paonia Town Council.  At these meetings, the State Director along with the State Communications Director (and Hotchkiss High alum, the story goes), the state minerals lead, and the district and field office managers, have been ‘refuting’ a chief complaint by claiming its 1980’s general land use plan for the area is really current because ‘it’s been amended or updated 16 times.’  That exactly none of those updates or amendments deal with oil and gas leasing and development is not mentioned.

Despite clumsy agency misdirection, it is this stale nature of that 1980s plan that is the main point of contention among the community. Especially pushing these leases through now, as the BLM is in the middle of revising its 1980s Resource Management Plan.  But because Colorado BLM is on autopilot, it sees no problem insisting its decision from yesteryear should satisfy the valley today, 25 years later. 

Thus when the BLM finally did make it up to the North Fork, to at least allow locals to hear the agency speak, Town Councils and locals were talked at and not listened to.  The mayor of Paonia noted that many people he talked to found the agency condescending, according to a story on the local radio station's website.  A blog on the High County News site sums up the Paonia meeting like this:

The incessant heckling was a shame, but so was the BLM’s misguided delivery, especially because they did have a few good points to make. It’s true that privately-held mineral rights in the North Fork valley could be leased for development regardless of what the BLM decides, and the town would be wise to prepare for that. It’s true that the BLM cannot guarantee a spill won’t occur or a well won’t blow out. But points like these got lost in the slew of defensive, wonky, and downright offensive answers — Hankins criticized locals who spoke with their elected officials, telling them that by doing so they weren’t participating in the BLM’s process — leaving the public wondering if they were really being heard.

Rather than listening to local concerns, State Director Hankins has made it appear as if local input did not really matter or weigh on the agency's mind, saying “The current policy of this Administration is for BLM to have quarterly oil and gas lease sales…our requirement is to move forward.” in the Mountain Valley News.  The Colorado BLM mineral staff claimed “We don’t have the luxury to stop issuing leases.  We can’t stand still.” [Mountain Valley News, 1/30/2013]. 

Deciding to forego a certain action is not 'standing still' of course, and maybe working with the community to put in place solid and adequate management for these highly valued, proximate public lands as the agency finishes its now-underway land use plan revision (in which the agency makes a big deal about the importance of community involvement) would be a way forward for BLM Colorado.  Perhaps it may be now that the BLM Colorado Office  is stuck in place, refusing to accept its authority to do something different than follow the same plan it has for the past 25 years without much thought or consideration, it seems, for the reality, today, on the actual lands it is suppose to manage.   It was only after the public complained, after all, that the BLM Colorado Office decided to remove the Paonis State Park Reservoir dam, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facility, from the original lease sale proposal.

The US Department of Interior has issued national guidance that states “In some cases, leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values.” 

In guidance to all DOI Field Officials [Instruction Memorandum No. 2010-117] BLM Director Bob Abbey stated that

The BLM recognizes that, in some cases, leasing of oil and gas resources may not be consistent with protection of other important resources and values, including units of the National Park System; national wildlife refuges; other specially designated areas; wildlife; and cultural, historic, and paleontological values. Under applicable laws and policies, there is no presumed preference for oil and gas development over other uses…It is BLM policy to exercise its discretionary authorities, including its oil and gas leasing authority, through the use of an informed, deliberative process that includes…communication with the public, tribal governments, and Federal, state, and local agencies…[and] consideration of important resources and values. 

Federal Law and related Federal Court decisions provide BLM with extremely broad discretion over whether or not to offer oil and gas leases.

The Mineral Leasing Act states that the public lands

…which are known or believed to contain oil or gas deposits may be leased by the Secretary [of the Interior]. 30 U.S.C. 226(a)  (emphasis added).

Courts have uniformly upheld the BLM’s broad to discretion to lease (and not to lease), even when areas are technically “open” to leasing under applicable management plans.  See, e.g., Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 20 (1965) finding that the Secretary of Interior (and his agents at BLM) have

overriding discretionary authority to refuse to issue an oil and gas lease on a given tract. . . .

In Marathon Oil Co.

. . . BLM is not bound by the terms of an RMP when considering whether or not to lease a particular parcel.

But Hankins did not limit herself to misrepresenting her agency's ability to not issue these particular leases.  She also used the meetings to blast a few locals that went back to Washington DC to meet with her bosses and elected officials.  Apparently they had not sought audience with her first.  So she informed the council members and public—on her first trip to the area to explain the agency’s position, months after any comment period has closed.

Now it was up to the residents of the valley to just let the matter rest with the BLM, which really had no choice but to lease the lands anyhow, she explained.  It was not participating properly in the management of public lands for the public to complain out of turn or to insist that the now underway land use plan revision be complete to account for current reality as a matter of first priority. The public was both misbehaving and misunderstanding, the State Director seemed to have visited the valley to tell its duly elected representatives.  

DOI Policy Allows For the Revision or Update of Land Use Plans and Implementation Decisions – And Public Opinion Matters.  

But the natives were not pleased with the visit from Lakewood or as the Delta County Independent headline reads "Explanations do little to soothe concerns."   That article goes on to note:

When Paonia trustee Eric Goold stated that the town did not have the infrastructure to handle the increase in heavy truck traffic, Sharrow responded that it would be a great opportunity for the town and county to come up with a plan and figure out how they would handle that.

At the Crawford work session, Sharrow told the trustees that often times the operators greatly improve the roads.

Goold asked if it was true that the oil and gas industry doesn't have to follow the Clean Water Act. Bagley responded there are oil and gas operations that are exempt.

And locals are in good cause to be displeased, because the agency is blatantly misrepresenting its authority–many argue obligation–to make sure planning for those things is done first. 

The BLM State Office is simply wrong.  It can, and must, provide just what the public and public land stakeholders have been demanding–an updated, current and adequate land use plan before it leases lands to an industrial use. The BLM Land Use Planning Handbook states that:

New information, updated analyses, or new resource use or protection proposals may require amending or revising land use plans and updating implementation decisions…New data or information can include… public comment or staff assessments indicating that new information or changed circumstances warrant a reconsideration of the appropriate mix of uses on particular tracts of public lands…[or] information from the public or others regarding conditions or uses of resources on public lands.   BLM Land Use Planning Handbook, 3/11/05

The Colorado BLM's trip to mollify locals in the North Fork did not succeed.  And as the articles come in and the fact checking begins, it seems like the fall out from it has not yet settled.  Currently the parcels are set to be leased on February 14, Valentines Day.  But right now locals are not feeling the love. 

3 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Duke CoxDuke Cox says:

    Excellent diary, CT. very well researched and put together.

    Anyone who believes the Colorado BLM is not a tool of the industry, simply isn't paying attention.

  2. ClubTwitty says:

    All North Fork parcels pulled. Again. 2/6/2013

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