- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2016

DENVER — Even without the Keep It in the Ground protesters providing backup, the Bureau of Land Management scrapped another oil and gas lease sale scheduled for Thursday in Colorado — which wasn’t unusual.

Under President Obama’s tightfisted federal lands policy, the agency has now canceled 34 out of 64 sales — 53 percent — in eight states in the past two years, a record that drew a lawsuit Thursday as concerns mount over Democrat Hillary Clinton’s similar leftward swing on energy issues.

The Democratic Party platform, drawn up in July by a panel stacked with Clinton appointees, vows to “phase down extraction of fossil fuels on our public lands,” a policy that critics say is already well underway under Mr. Obama.

Anti-lease activists “could stay at home, and they’re still getting their demands met, because the BLM is just not holding the sales like they’re supposed to,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

Fed up with the cancellations and delays, the alliance filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing the agency of violating the Mineral Leasing Act, which requires the federal agency to hold at least four lease sales per year in eligible states where there is interest in fossil fuel exploration.

On numerous occasions, the sales have drawn demonstrations by Keep It in the Ground, a coalition of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, 350.org and Greenpeace, which has attempted to put an end to oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

Friends of the Earth took credit in February for the postponement of a lease sale in Cheyenne, Wyoming, saying the delay “highlights the growing strength of the ‘Keep It in the Ground’ movement.”

In most cases, however, Ms. Sgamma said, the slowdown lies with bureaucratic red tape. In 2010, the Obama administration adopted a rotation system dividing states into four sectors and holding the quarterly lease sales in one sector per state.

The result has been a series of delays, postponements and cancellations that have effectively slashed oil and gas production on federal lands.

“It’s really kind of a convenient excuse. If you divide up Utah into four, there are only a couple of areas where there’s significant federal oil and gas development,” Ms. Sgamma said. “That means about half of the sales are really just for areas where there’s not that much interest, and that gives you a convenient way to say, ‘Well, there’s not much interest here; we’re not going to hold a sale.’”

That outcome is fine with environmentalists, who have pushed to ban fossil fuel extraction on public lands, saying a ban is needed in order to combat climate change.

Jamie Henn, a spokesman for 350.org, said the Western Energy Alliance lawsuit is “another example of how Big Oil is only interested in more profits and couldn’t care less about protecting the climate or our public lands.”

“Scientists have clearly stated we need to transition away from fossil fuels to protect our children’s future, but the industry just wants more, more, more. It’s high time our public lands start serving the public good,” Mr. Henn said.

Public benefit

Industry officials argue that lease sales do benefit the public by providing inexpensive, reliable domestically produced energy as well as government revenue. Even with the delays and cancellations, the BLM has collected $170 million in lease sales since January 2015, the alliance said.

A BLM spokeswoman said the agency was aware of the filing and declined to comment on ongoing litigation. In the past, BLM officials have cited tight budgets as a reason for the postponed and canceled sales.

BLM will say, ‘We don’t have enough resources to hold four lease sales a year.’ Well, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that argument because oil and gas is pretty much the only BLM program that returns significant resources back to the taxpayer,” Ms. Sgamma said. “They’ve transferred resources away from oil and gas, and then they’re claiming they don’t have enough resources. Well, we return about $17 for every dollar spent on the oil and gas program.”

His supporters note that Mr. Obama has presided over a domestic oil and gas production boom since taking office in 2009, allowing U.S. suppliers to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. But critics point out that the surge has occurred on private property, not federal land.

From 2008 to 2015, natural gas production on non-federal land climbed by 66 percent while declining on federal lands by about 15 percent, according to the Western Energy Alliance, citing Congressional Research Service data.

“That kind of tells you everything you need to know,” Ms. Sgamma said. “There’s a boom, we’re all under the same market conditions, but if you look at federal lands, they’re making it more difficult.”

At the same time, the White House has come under intense pressure from green groups such as the Keep It in the Ground movement. In July, about 250 groups filed a petition calling for “an immediate moratorium on new leases for federally managed, publicly owned oil, gas, tar sands and oil shale.”

In November, protesters forced the postponement of a lease sale on 73,000 acres in Utah after agency organizers said the Salt Lake City venue was too small to accommodate the high number of people who wanted to attend. Police were called when more than 300 protesters tried to block entry to a lease sale in Lakewood, Colorado, but the auction went off largely as planned.

“What the environmental groups are doing is trying to force BLM to violate the law,” Ms. Sgamma said. “The Mineral Leasing Act says BLM needs to hold four sales per year in each oil and gas state where interest exists. They’re trying to say just stop leasing. We’re reminding BLM of its obligation to hold quarterly lease sales.”

One product of the friction is that the BLM plans to move forward with online lease sales. The agency’s first internet sale is scheduled for Sept. 20 on 4,398 acres of federal land in Kentucky and Mississippi.

“The upcoming sale marks the beginning of a phase-in for internet-based leasing using the EnergyNet system for BLM oil and gas lease sales,” the BLM said in a June 23 statement. “A number of state governments use EnergyNet for online sales of state parcels.”

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