Although the BLM has succeeded nationally in implementing real reforms that emphasize a true balanced approach to energy development on public lands, it looks like that message hasn’t made its way to every state office. Last week, the Tres Rios field office in Southwest Colorado opened up 700,000 acres of land to oil and gas development, without bringing all the stakeholders to the table first.
Here are seven need-to-know facts about drilling and why a balanced approach to energy development is critical for this region, instead of the one-sided approach this field office as taken.
1. Past BLM leasing proposals have been highly controversial: The BLM has faced stiff opposition for twice proposing oil and gas leasing that would impact local landowners, water, farming and ranching operations, and air quality in Mesa Verde National Park. Despite strong support by La Plata County and local landowners, the BLM failed to address these concerns in the Tres Rios Resource Management Plan or through a Master Leasing Plan which would have allowed for stakeholder engagement.
- The BLM controls oil and gas deposits below agricultural lands. The BLM manages 319,957 acres oil and gas minerals that seat beneath farm and ranch lands in La Plata and Montezuma Counties. Many of these farms have been passed down through generations, and some farms are over 100 years old. Today, agriculture still means big business for La Plata and Montezuma County, with agriculture accounting for 2,200 jobs and more than $800,000 in economic activity. But the split nature of this estate puts those farms at risk.
- Water for agricultural activities is scarce for farms and ranches in La Plata County’s “dry side” and could be put at risk by oil and gas development. In past analysis, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has acknowledged that increased oil and gas development, even with the application of “best management practices, is likely to affect soil and water conditions due to the number, size, and location of the lease parcels,” could “degrade water quality conditions potentially to the point of not meeting water quality standards,” and “increase the potential for slope failure.”
- New oil and gas development could stress local transportation infrastructure. The Colorado Department of Transportation has raised concerns about the stress that oil and gas development could put on local infrastructure – many roads and networks in the surrounding areas were not built with the intention of local industrial development. Without proper support and funding, local residents and county taxpayers could be on the hook to cover costs for local improvements and maintaining roads and highways.
- Potential threats remain to wildlife habitat, and a more than half-million dollar state conservation easement project. The Tres Rios RMP allows oil and gas development of minerals underneath a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPC) $582,800 conservation easement project, which had been considered for leasing once by BLM in 2013. In comments from 2013, CPW noted “oil and gas development will decrease population levels of big game and result in lower quality and fewer hunting and fishing recreational opportunities in the affected counties, decreasing sustainable revenues from these activities.” According to CPW, Hunting and fishing activities provided $103.3 million of economic benefits and supported approximately 1,157 jobs in La Plata, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Miguel counties in 2007. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources had protested the proposed final Tres Rios RMP because it was unable to evaluate the effectiveness of the BLM’s wildlife stipulations, an issue that remains unaddressed in the final.
- Oil and gas development could impact air quality and night skies in nearby Mesa Verde National Park. Air quality analysis by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service found that “the region is just below the current ozone standard” and by 2018, the oil and gas sector will account for 37 percent of regional NOₓ emissions and 70 percent of VOCs. The analysis also found that “At Mesa Verde National Park, monitoring data indicates visibility is degraded by 123% compared to natural background visibility for the 20% worst visibility days.” The National Park Service has repeatedly raised concerns over the years about impacts to the park and called on BLM to better engage stakeholders in management decisions. While today’s announcement did create a region-wide standard for air quality, those standards are too weak and need to be strengthened. A Master Leasing Plan effort would allow for a dialogue to create a management plan that better protects air quality in the park and throughout the Four Corners region.
- The Tres Rios Resource Management Plan issued last week allows oil and gas drilling on 92.4% of the lands and minerals managed by the BLM.