Judge says the public has a right to know
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — In a ruling that could fundamentally shake up the way federal officials run leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands, Senior District Judge Richard P. Matsch this week said the Bureau of Land Management must reveal the identity of companies nominating parcels for the leasing process.
Fossil fuel industry leaders said they hope the federal government will appeal the ruling to protect the integrity of the bidding process. Read the ruling here.
In the Feb. 13 decision, Matsch rejected the government’s position that revealing the names of the nominators would give competitors an unfair advantage. The judge emphasized that the identity of the nominators is important information for citizens seeking to comment on potential lease sales, based on the companies’ past environmental records.
“That contention runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process. Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals,” Matsch wrote. “Moreover, the identity of the submitter may be relevant to the plaintiff and others who may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale.”
The lawsuit originated when citizen groups in the North Fork Valley of Colorado requested information on companies submitting formal “expression of interest” statements. The Bureau of Land Management rejected the request, citing the need for confidentiality.
A BLM spokesman in Colorado said agency officials won’t comment on the ruling until they’ve had a chance to review it closely.
For the fossil fuel industry, the decision came as a surprise.
“This ruling is very startling, Clearly, information on who’s nominating leases is privileged commercial information under the Freedom of Information Act,” said Kathleen Sgamma, VP of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.
“Exposing that information before a sale would result in less competition in lease sales and therefore, less return to the federal government as fewer companies would be willing to participate in a process that doesn’t protect competitive information,” Sgamma said. “The public is fully informed after the sale. We hope the Department of Justice, recognizing the broader implications of this ruling beyond federal leases sales, will appeal the ruling.”
“Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate,” said Western Environmental Law Center attorney Kyle Tisdel. “The Court’s decision is a clear rebuke of BLM’s policy to protect industry at the expense of the public and its ability to fully engage the agency’s decision-making process.”