- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Bureau of Land Management is delaying next week’s lease sale in the heart of New Mexico oil and gas country after anti-industry activists raised concerns about transparency.

Environmentalists who have been protesting lease sales across the West consider the decision a small victory as they push for the agency to do large-scale assessments of the effects of drilling on federal land.

“It’s a positive sign,” said Jeremy Nichols with the group WildEarth Guardians. “The hope now is that this translates to greater transparency and accountability on the climate impacts of its oil and gas leasing program.”

Nichols’ group and other environmental organizations have gone beyond the tradition of submitting written comments in opposition to showing up at auctions around the West with protest signs and chants, shifting more attention to what used to be mundane transactions between regulators and oil and gas companies.

Dozens of activists protested in downtown Reno in March, holding signs that read “Keep It In The Ground” and “Oil, Coal, Gas = Climate Chaos.” The month before, nearly 100 environmentalists were escorted out of an auction in Salt Lake City when they refused to stop singing.

In November 2015, the BLM in Utah had to cancel an auction after they realized they didn’t have a big enough room to accommodate protesters who wanted to watch.

And close to 200 protesters turned out in Santa Fe for the last lease sale.

Wally Drangmeister, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, acknowledged that opponents of development have ramped up their rhetoric and actions.

“We hope this sale goes off in an orderly fashion,” he said of the rescheduled auction in New Mexico.

The sale was initially planned for July 20 in Santa Fe, home of the BLM’s main office for the region. The agency sent out a notice in late June saying it was being moved to Roswell, about 200 miles away.

BLM spokeswoman Lisa Morrison said management opted for Roswell given that all of the parcels up for bid are in southeastern New Mexico and that the area’s two field offices would be able to help coordinate the sale.

Activists argued that the move was intended to stifle their ongoing criticism, a claim the BLM denied.

“We learned there were some concerns about BLM not providing enough adequate notice about moving the location so our management decided to go ahead and reschedule it,” Morrison said. “We decided in the interest of transparency to the public that would be a good thing.”

The BLM is still expecting protesters at the auction, which involves three dozen parcels that cover more than 21 square miles.

Industry officials say the delay isn’t a major setback. With prices recovering somewhat, producers are beginning to take steps to position their operations for long-term success, Drangmeister said.

“The interest level and prices for this upcoming lease sale will be a good indication of the confidence of those looking to start or continue to produce oil and gas in New Mexico,” he said.

BLM officials say they will likely take into consideration the locations of the parcels up for grabs when deciding locations for future auctions. There also has been a push by industry for online sales, something that could happen by 2017.

While the leasing process allows for public comment months before an auction is ever held, environmentalists say they see the sales as opportunities to make a stand.

“We’re trying to get this administration to put a halt to new oil and gas leasing, just like they did with coal,” Nichols said.

Industry officials argue that leases are part of the federal government’s multiple-use mission for public lands and that the government and states depend on the revenues brought in by drilling every year.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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