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Obama-era Onshore Oil, Gas Leasing Reforms Eliminated by BLM

The Trump administration eliminated a series of Obama-era reforms to the Bureau of Land Management's onshore oil and natural gas leasing program, including the use of master leasing plans (MLP), on the grounds that the reforms were duplicative and burdensome to the oil and gas industry.

In an instruction memorandum (IM) issued last Wednesday, the BLM informed field offices that the leasing program needed to be updated. Changes outlined in the IM are designed to "simplify and streamline the leasing process to alleviate unnecessary impediments and burdens, to expedite the offering of lands for lease, and to ensure quarterly oil and gas lease sales are consistently held in accordance with the Mineral Leasing Act."

The reforms were initially launched in January 2010 by then-Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM finalized the reforms shortly thereafter.

The IM calls for, among other things, "eliminating the use of MLPs" because they "have created duplicate layers” of review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). “The BLM will not initiate any new MLPs or complete ongoing MLPs under consideration as land use plan amendments."

By not initiating any new MLPs or completing ongoing MLPs, BLM indicated it no longer plans to continue work on an MLP for the Tres Rios region in southwestern Colorado. The MLP would have included provisions for exceptions, modifications and waivers of oil and gas leases under an existing resource management plan (RMP).

BLM said it would rely on RMPs in place of MLPs. Under the IM, the BLM’s state and field offices would continue the practice of determining appropriate stipulations for parcels offered for lease, provided the stipulations are applicable with the RMP. The offices would also conduct lease parcel reviews to determine the conditions under which a lease sale would be allowed to proceed. The lease parcel reviews are to be conducted simultaneously with a NEPA review.

The IM also stipulates that the BLM no longer use a rotating schedule for lease sales, and said site visits "are not required and should only be considered when deemed necessary by the authorized officer on a case-by-case basis." For lease sales, the IM shortened the public protest period for lease sales from one month to 10 days, which would begin the day the sale notice is posted.

The move by BLM satisfies an executive order (EO) signed by President Trump last March. The EO called for, among other things, DOI and other government agencies to review all existing regulations and orders that could potentially hamper domestic energy development, including oil and natural gas.

Last June, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Acting DOI Assistant Secretary Kate MacGregor hinted that the BLM was considering eliminating MLPs.

"In order to respond to our nation's energy needs, the BLM is engaged in a variety of efforts to support domestic production," MacGregor said in her written testimony. "These efforts include predictable leasing; reducing barriers to accessing energy resources on BLM public lands; [and] reviewing and streamlining the BLM's leasing and permitting processes to serve its customers and the public more efficiently and effectively..."

Industry Pleased, Environmental Groups Not So Much

Western Energy Alliance (WEA) President Kathleen Sgamma told NGI's Shale Daily that the organization was encouraged by the leasing memorandum, and in response dismissed a lawsuit challenging the rotational lease sale schedule that resulted from the 2010 policy.

"Rotating sales meant that leases in booming areas like the Permian Basin in New Mexico would only come up for sale once a year, whereas areas where there is no interest elsewhere in the state would result in null lease sales," Sgamma said Friday. "If a company caught the cycle wrong, it could result in lease nominations taking a few years to come up for sale."

Sgamma said the WEA also had wanted the MLPs removed, because they "were another layer of environmental analysis on an existing system with three, four or even five layers of environmental analysis before development can occur."

Environmental groups slammed DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke for the changes, and Sierra Club spokesman Athan Manuel called for him to resign.

"Ryan Zinke's disregard for the American people and their public lands knows no bounds," Manuel said. "When he isn't trying to sell off or illegally undo protections for public lands to please corporate polluters, he's potentially illegally altering offshore drilling plans for political purposes, or catching Donald Trump's ire. It's past time Zinke resigns."

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