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Colorado, Utah BLM Leasing Moratorium Decried by Industry

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) moratorium on oil/natural gas leasing in adjacent corners of Colorado and Utah has the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) crying foul.

By issuing an instruction memorandum (IM) internally, Washington, DC-based BLM officials moved to protect portions of the 1.7 million-acre gunnison sage grouse habitat, but the action threatens to economically harm a widely varying topographical area in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, according to Kathleen Sgamma, a WEA vice president.

According to a BLM spokesperson in Colorado, the areas covered in the moratorium include 455,557 acres of proposed occupied critical gunnison sage grouse habitat in Colorado and 3,233 acres of proposed occupied critical gunnison sage grouse habitat in Utah.

"This IM builds on existing policy and protections for gunnison sage grouse through state, local, private and federal efforts," the BLM spokesperson told NGI. "The protections mentioned in this IM are not significantly different from policies already in place to protect gunnison sage grouse.

"The IM does not halt ongoing operations on existing leases. However, any new surface disturbance on existing leases would be very closely looked at regarding its impact on sage-grouse. "

Sgamma said the latest IM to respond to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) advising habitat protection for both conservation and endangered species reasons is "nothing new from what we have been seeing from BLM." The difference in this instance, she said, is the federal agency "stated its stance so blatantly." She contends that BLM is doing the same thing with the gunnison sage grouse that it has done with the greater sage grouse across 11 western states (See Daily GPI,Dec. 30, 2011).

Because gunnison is on a different timeline, the BLM issued the policy, but it is no different than earlier moves, Sgamma said.

"[BLM] is severely restricting economic activity and job creation by basically shutting down economic activity for four months of every year," she said. The BLM's action applies to a four-mile wide strip around the habitat area, which WEA considers excessive.

"If you are going to stop economic activity for four miles out along a radius for four months out of the year to protect a species, there needs to be more adequate consideration of the economic consequences. There is no consideration for what is actually happening on the ground."

Last year when FWS proposed to list as endangered the gunnison sage grouse and designate 1.7 million acres of critical habitat for the bird under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it released an economic analysis that concluded it would cost the two states more than $290 million annually (see Shale Daily, Sept. 23, 2013)

BLM's IM effectively stops prospective issuing of new leases and restricts existing ones, based on the federal government retaining certain rights anytime they lease federally managed lands for oil/gas development.

"While the BLM may not unilaterally add a new stipulation to an existing lease that it has already issued, the BLM can subject development of existing leases to reasonable conditions as necessary," the IM told local directors in Colorado and Utah.

As part of the moratorium process, approximately 800,000 acres of public lands will be analyzed through an environmental impact statement (EIS) and accompanying resource management plan (RMP) amendments, BLM said. The lands analyzed under the EIS will include both proposed occupied and unoccupied critical gunnison sage grouse habitat.

"This planning effort will codify existing protections for gunnison sage grouse in 11 RMPs in Western Colorado and Utah, as well as potentially identifying new protections based on the latest science and work by local and state groups. We will issue a Federal Register Notice of Intent to kick off this effort in coming weeks."

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