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BLM Sets Two Master Leasing Plans in Northwest Colorado; Industry Unimpressed

Two areas of the rich natural resources along Colorado's western slope now have master leasing plans (MLP) developed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) . The MLPs cover more than 3 million acres of federal mineral estate, including natural resources, cultural property and special area protection.

While the federal agency is touting the latest of a long-string of planning documents impacting oil/gas development, industry groups echoed concerns that with each new iteration from the BLM the restrictions become too onerous. Litigation challenging the MLPs is possible, according to industry sources.

"The excessive restrictions in the plans go far beyond what is reasonably required to protect the land, and are not balanced with the livelihoods of West Slope citizens," said Kathleen Sgamma, a vice president with the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA). Every new BLM plan under the Obama administration has taken a step backward for the ability to develop oil/gas resources on public lands, said David Ludlam, head of the West Slope chapter of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA).

The Colorado plans follow closely BLM action earlier this month to establish another MLP for federal lands in east-central Utah as a model for how communities can balance oil/natural gas development with protection of iconic landscapes such as the lands around Moab, UT (see Shale Daily, Aug. 18).

In Colorado, the Department of Interior's BLM has set MLPs for the Dinosaur Trail and the Shale Ridges and Canyons areas, which fall in parts of the Piceance Basin. The plans were established as part of the Grand Junction Resource Management Plan (RMP) under the White River Field Office oil/gas amendment, according to BLM.

While receiving mixed reviews from both industry and environmental groups, the BLM since 2010 has been carving out MLPs as part of what the Obama administration touts as "sweeping" oil/gas leasing reforms. The federal agency said the master plans are supposed to help create "responsible" exploration and production (E&P) on federal lands.

Since the West Slope region of the state has major recreation and big game habitat areas, BLM Colorado Director Ruth Welch said the new MLPs should bring "closure" to what she described as conflicts surrounding energy development in the scenic landscape north of Grand Junction, CO.

"It is absolutely critical that we manage these public lands in a way that makes sense now and into the future," Welch said, calling the Dinosaur and Ridges plans balanced. "[The plans] provide opportunities for energy and mineral development, as well as protection for natural resources, Native American culture sites, and special areas."

Sgamma argued that oil/natural gas development on BLM lands for a long time has been done in a safe and environmentally protective manner. She thinks BLM is leaving itself vulnerable to litigation because neither MLP was analyzed as a draft document. "The public did not have a chance to evaluate the restrictions and their impacts to jobs and the economy."

Ludlam said the oil/gas industry is a "business partner" with the federal agency, but "too often these days, you don't know what you're going to get from the partner.” He added that two counties involved as federally designated "cooperative agencies" for these MLPs -- Moffat and Mesa -- have formally protested them. "The MLPs fail to fundamentally recognize how the oil/gas industry works," Ludlam said.

"We're not opposed to long-term planning; it is just that our 'business partner' doesn't fundamentally understand our business," Ludlam said, adding that legal action is still possible. "It [regulation] changes dramatically with each election cycle, and that makes it very difficult to manage a business."

In the Dinosaur Trail MLP, there is an effort, according to BLM officials, to minimize resource conflicts and impact on the Dinosaur National Monument as well as other nearby resources from oil and gas development in support of the White Rivers RMP amendment, covering 357,800 acres. The area has been contentious (see Shale Daily, March 27).

The Shale Ridges and Canyons MLP is aimed at improving environmental protection of important natural resources while adding what BLM termed "the orderly leasing and balanced energy development" in the region that includes Colorado's part of the Piceance. The broader Grand Junction RMP provides guidance on land management covering more than 1 million acres and 1.2 million subsurface acres, BLM said.

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