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Colorado: BLM defers more drilling leases

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Roads and drill pads dot vast stretches of western Colorado.

Parcels near Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park won’t be auctioned next week

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Bureau of Land Management this week said it will defer another eight contested oil- and gas-drilling parcels from a Feb. 14 lease sale that will be the biggest so far in Colorado under the Obama administration, at 68,692 acres.

The deferrals announced Feb. 8 include 10,839 acres near Mesa Verde National Park, and about 2,600 acres near Dinosaur National Monument. With leasing and drilling widespread around western Colorado, conservation groups say they want to makse sure that land with high recreation and conservation values are protected from drilling impacts.

Fossil fuel companies have already leased millions of acres across the West that haven’t yet been developed, but lease sales like next week’s are aimed giving the companies time to develop long-term development plans.

The latest round of deferrals was criticized by fossil fuel development companies as yet another sign that the Obama administration is unwilling to press forward with resource development on public lands.

“It shows that they’re going to give in to political pressure and special interest groups,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs with the Western Energy Alliance.

Sgamma dismissed claims that the BLM is basing its leasing decisions on outdated plans, explaining that the relevant resource plan was just completed in 2011 and already factors in impacts to public lands managed by the National Park Service. She said the “either-or” scenario portrayed by conservation groups gives the public a false choice. Energy development can co-exist with other uses of public lands, she added.

All the parcels proposed for leasing were nominated by fossil fuel development companies on lands identified for that use by the BLM’s existing land-use plans, but the parcels near the lands managed by the National Park Service drew special attention from conservation groups, as well as a coalition of retired park service employees, who pointed out that earlier comments by the National Park Service raised concerns about issues like regional air quality.

“We’re glad to see Colorado BLM finally applying common sense to leasing decisions. But, that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of red tape, to say nothing of residents’ and local business owners’ time and anguish,could have been saved if (Colorado BLM director) Hankins had applied the Department of Interior’s leasing reforms in the first place,” said Ellynne Bannon, Checks and Balances Project western energy and lands program manager.

Bannon said the Colorado BLM needs to modernize leasing policies and include other agencies, like the National Park Service, residents and business owners early in the planning process.

Current leasing practices have resulted in high rate of protests in Colorado; higher than in nearby states, where the BLM had adopted reforms suggested for the leasing program. An analysis by The Wilderness Society indicates that 85 percent of Colorado leases have been challenged at late stage in the process.

, Dir. Hankins’ policies have resulted in protests against 85 percent of Colorado leases in fiscal year 2012, compared to 33 percent throughout the rest of the Rocky Mountain regi

  • Deferral of the February and May leases follows former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument Denny Huffman’s Denver Post column, in which he wrote that Dir. Hankins was promoting “irresponsible” drilling proposals near national parks.

·         The National Park Service (NPS), Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and La Plata County, in addition to San Juan Citizens Alliance, all raised concerns about the Mesa Verde lease parcels.

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