President Trump’s outgoing administration continues to fire away on its priority policy items in its final weeks in office.
The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to offer 383 parcels across a huge swath of Wyoming in a planned oil and gas lease sale in March that includes 141 parcels covering more than 244,000 acres of greater sage grouse habitat.
Environmental groups plan to oppose the inclusion of the sage grouse parcels in the planned lease sale, which includes another 239,000 acres outside of grouse habitat.
It’s possible that BLM under President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, would defer the sage grouse parcels at issue pending further analysis well before the March lease sale, sources said.
But BLM said in press materials that it “meticulously reviewed the proposed parcels and determined leasing each of them conforms to all applicable policies and land use plans.”
BLM also removed 42 parcels that crossed “priority” sage grouse habitat from the planned lease sale due to “the need for further evaluation,” according to an environmental assessment (EA) analyzing the parcels.
The proposed lease parcels crossing sage grouse habitat would include timing restrictions to reduce impacts during breeding and chick rearing season, as well as “no surface occupancy” requirements where needed, the EA says.
The EA is open for a 30-day public comment period running through Dec. 13.
BLM also released an unsigned finding of no significant impact document that concludes conducting a more intensive environmental impact statement on the parcels is unnecessary.
“I have determined that the project is not a major federal action and will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment, individually or cumulatively, with other actions in the general area,” according to the document, which would likely be signed on final approval by BLM’s Wyoming state director.
But critics say otherwise.
“These lease developments will undoubtedly impact those greater sage grouse populations,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.
Rutledge said the leasing proposal is clearly at odds with greater sage grouse conservation plans finalized in 2015 by the Obama administration that are still in effect, despite efforts by the Trump administration to revise them.
“We will continue to address their violations of the 2015 plans,” he said.
The Trump administration has made a point of emphasizing the freeing of the oil and gas industry to develop federal parcels, including in sage grouse habitat.
BLM last year finalized revisions to Obama-era sage grouse conservation plans that would have allowed for exemptions and waivers of development in priority sage grouse habitat (Greenwire, March 15, 2019).
But Judge B. Lynn Winmill in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho sided with environmental groups that sued over the grouse revisions, issuing a preliminary injunction last year blocking BLM from implementing the grouse plan changes (Greenwire, Oct. 17, 2019).
While Winmill’s ruling has forced BLM to use provisions outlined in the Obama-era blueprint, which prioritized leasing outside grouse habitat, it has made moves to try to convince the judge to lift the injunction.
And it continues to offer industry-nominated parcels in sage grouse habitat, only to later drop them.
BLM last fall was forced to defer 282 parcels covering 347,525 acres from a Sept. 24 lease sale in Wyoming because the parcels intersected, either in whole or in part, with sage grouse habitat (Greenwire, Sept. 18).
BLM did that after a separate court order, this time from Montana District Chief Judge Brian Morris.
Morris in May issued an order invalidating 440 leases from three separate lease sales in Montana and Wyoming and a 2018 BLM instruction memorandum (IM) that removed previous requirements to prioritize leasing activity outside of grouse habitat (E&E News PM, May 26).
Morris ruled that the IM, and the subsequent lease sales in the two states, violated greater sage grouse conservation plans finalized by the Obama administration in 2015.
Reprinted from Greenwire with the permission of E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.