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Oil and Gas Development

E&E News PM, October 7, 2008

Enviro groups want BLM to suspend oil shale decision
By Noelle Straub

Environmental groups want the Bureau of Land Management to temporarily withdraw its decision to designate land in three Western states for potential oil shale development, saying the agency failed to allow an opportunity for public protest.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, 11 groups argue that BLM should follow the procedure it typically uses and allow time for the public and the governors of the affected states to review and raise concerns about the decision before it is finalized.

In early September, BLM released an environmental study that would allow potential development on 2 million acres with oil shale resources and about 430,000 acres with tar sands. That proposed final programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) would amend land-use plans in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah to prioritize oil shale and tar sands development on lands in the most promising geologic areas. BLM said it would wait at least 60 days before issuing a record of decision approving the final plan.

BLM had released a draft of the EIS in December and received more than 105,000 comments on it. That resulted in the addition of clarifying language to the final statement but no significant changes.

But because the September announcement made it clear that there is no opportunity for continued public participation in the process, the amendments should be withdrawn until the agency has fully complied with applicable laws, the groups say. "BLM's regulations require that those who have participated in the amendment process be given an opportunity to protest," they wrote, charging the agency with violating requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and was inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.

BLM says the Interior Department made the decision now in order to comply with the congressionally mandated deadline set out in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, consistent with the FLPMA and related regulations.

"As a result, the BLM protest period does not apply," said BLM spokesman Matt Spangler in a statement. "In addition, the strategic importance of alternative energy resources, such as oil shale and tar sands, in enhancing the nation's domestic energy supplies factored into the decision."

The groups, including the Wilderness Society, Western Resource Advocates, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, also said the move did not give governors of affected states a required chance to review the changes. When amending land-use plans, BLM regulations require that the governors be given 60 days to review the amendments, identify inconsistencies with state or local plans, policies, or programs, and then propose resolution of any such inconsistencies.

The BLM decision has "deprived the public of an opportunity to provide meaningful comment on the numerous areas included in the PEIS, including but not limited to the manner in which the agency considered impacts on the environment, the public's ability to participate in the agency's analysis of environmental impacts, the resulting decisions about our public lands, and the logic of proceeding toward leasing and developing a resource that yield fuels that generate upward of 50 percent more global warming emissions than conventional oil," the letter said.

BLM's next action will be to complete rules on issuing leases. It is moving forward with that effort after a one-year congressional moratorium expired, preventing the agency from finalizing such regulations.

Click here to read the letter.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton