By Heather Richards
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — About one-quarter of the Western land offered in auctions to oil and gas companies under the Trump administration so far has been in state-designated priority habitat or migration corridors for big game, according to a review of public lease sales by the Center for American Progress.
In Wyoming, 20 percent of leases offered in 2017 and 2018 coincided with protected areas, the reports states.
The study used publicly available data to overlap parcels offered in lease sales in the last two years with acres under a number of state protections — from state-designated migration corridors to big-game winter ranges as identified in state action plans written in accordance with a secretarial order from then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last year.
Lease sales that overlap with key habitat has become a point of discord between industry development and the environment under President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, with persistent disputes over whether more land is going to oil and gas interests as a result of the president’s federal land policy in the West.
Environmental groups have pointed out the amount of acreage leased in recent years is higher than normal over the last decade and leasing is happening in some of the best habitat for wildlife.
In Wyoming, leases were offered in the March federal sale in the Golden Triangle – an area widely considered some of the best sage grouse habitat in Wyoming, triggering concern that no land was off limits from the state’s cornerstone industry.
Industry has downplayed the environmentalists’ point of view, arguing that federal policies – like the tighter timelines on public review of environmental analysis implemented under Trump – have helped streamline the process of development on federally managed lands. There is not a sudden or overwhelming drilling presence on public land to the detriment of other concerns, they argue.
In regard to leasing in protected habitats, they have argued Wyoming has stringent protections for development in sensitive areas and leasing land to an oil and gas company does not undo those protections.
The rise in leasing activity has been notable in recent years across the West. Since 2017, the administration has sold 4,500 leases in the West. In 2018, the administration leased 450 percent more acres to industry than it had in 2016, according to the report.
Oil and gas activity began to pick up in Wyoming, both on federal land and off, in early 2017. A BLM lease sale in the first quarter of that year netted $129 million, a dramatic increase from previous years. That sale was significant, in part because a moratorium on leasing that had held up sales in the Powder River Basin in prior years had been lifted. That sudden offering of prime real estate coincided with a rising price of oil.
The revenue from lease sales in Wyoming shot up as the price turned, with 2017 garnering 800 percent more income from federal and state lease sales than the year before. The number of acres leased, however, wasn’t much higher until 2018.
In 2015, more than 300,000 acres of federally managed land in Wyoming were leased to oil and gas companies. In 2016 that number fell to 227,904 acres. In 2017 it rose to 247,517, according to BLM records.
Last year, an estimated 714,963 acres were leased.
Though support from the Trump administration, a switch to online bidding and statewide sales every quarter have each been identified by experts as contributors to the rise in leasing activity, a primary catalyst in Wyoming industry was also the price of crude oil, which improved throughout 2017 and 2018, stalling out toward the end of last year.
The leasing story across the West hasn’t been uniform. In New Mexico, lease sales offering part of the Permian for oil and gas development helped drive a record $1 billion sale in September. That same month in Nevada, a BLM auction of 300,000 acres sold nothing. Industry had proposed the land for sale, but no one bid on it.
Pete Obermueller, president of the Wyoming Petroleum Association, said the sudden environmental concern over leasing numbers is misplaced.
People mistakenly think of the leasing stage as where limits on drilling take place. But it’s the stipulations attached to leases and permits to drill, rules that govern development, that matter, he added.
“You could lease 100 percent of the acres in Wyoming and still have every bit of wildlife protection that we already have,” he said, noting as an example a recent lease in Sweetwater County that overlaps with a migration corridor. In addition to lease notices that this migration corridor obligates the company to work with the BLM and the state to keep activity out of the corridor are timing stipulations and surface disturbance limitations for sage grouse, raptors and big game.
“If a company wants to spend the money to acquire a lease that has all of these wildlife protections, great,” he said. “They are going into it eyes wide open that they are paying for a lease that has a huge amount of protection for Wyoming wildlife and they have to work around those.”
Multiple environmental groups and sportsmen have fought the assertion that protections are largely a question for permitting, worried that leases are a property right that reduces state and federal control over drilling, and have raised concerns about the impact of leasing or not leasing in certain areas.
Aside from market drivers for industry interest in Wyoming lands, conservationists who are protesting, appealing and suing over policy changes and energy projects maintain that the Trump administration has given energy its ear and the environment lip service.
The conflict between energy and big game arose in Wyoming over a mule deer migration corridor from the Red Desert to Hoback — the longest mule deer migration corridor in the world — where numbers of oil and gas parcels were considered for lease in late 2018.
Parcels of land in the corridor were removed from sale and a compromise was reached with state wildlife officials for overlapping parcels. Leases would carry notices obliging oil and gas firms to work with regulators on development plans so that drilling and other activity would occur outside the corridor.
That compromise was considered a capitulation and a risk from conservation groups who maintained that the administration is eroding safeguards and introducing loopholes to favor the energy industry. The mule deer corridor, they argued, should at least be unleased until local management plans could provide stipulations on how development would proceed.
The Center for American Progress report focuses on the new Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whom environmental and conservation groups have opposed for the leadership position due to Bernhardt’s history lobbying for the oil and gas sector. Bernhardt carries on for the ousted Zinke, whom groups also opposed for perceived capitulation to the energy sector.
The report adds to a wave of criticism from conservationists that the federal agencies have focused on deregulation and energy development to the detriment of recreation, sport, cultural sensitivity and the environment on Western lands.
Wyoming is not the only Western state where the report notes an overlap between energy and big game.
In New Mexico, the CAP report states, 82 percent of oil and gas leases offered in the last two years are in state-identified wildlife priority areas, mostly in the southeast corner of the state where the country’s biggest oil field crosses the border from the largely private acres of Texas to the federally managed parcels of New Mexico.