SALT LAKE CITY — An association representing hundreds of oil and gas producers in the West is appealing the Bureau of Land Management's decision to yank 57 parcels of land from its November sale, asserting that the federal agency unlawfully caved in to a special interest group.
“BLM made a decision to defer 57 leases in Utah because of a last-minute request from one special-interest group," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for Western Energy Alliance. "The group did not even bother to comment during the prescribed analysis or protest phases, two separate opportunities over several months for the public to participate."
In its official appeal of the Nov. 14 decision by BLM state director Juan Palma, the alliance, joined by Castle Valley Holdings, said federal land managers held a closed, private meeting with the Utah Rock Art Research Association on Oct. 23 and unlawfully reacted to concerns raised in a subsequent letter on Nov. 7, nearly two months after the close of a protest period.
“BLM’s own policies state that it won’t accept comments received after established deadlines, yet it ignored the public and its own carefully crafted measures by bending to the demands of one group," Sgamma said.
"The situation raises serious questions about political favoritism and sows further uncertainty in the federal leasing process," she said.
The decision, the appeal stressed, was in "complete disregard of the (BLM's) own lease sale policies and procedures."
Multiple groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club, raised objections to the sale, accusing the BLM of sacrificing the world-renowned geologic landscapes at the swell in favor of oil and gas production. Palma made the decision to defer the parcels from leasing five days before the planned auction, announcing that more review was necessary.
But Sgamma noted that the BLM's "complete reverse" of its decision upended the process, costing oil companies more than $500,000 in upfront research on the land parcels.
"The public should be able to rely on the BLM to follow its own regulations and procedural guidance to provide consistency and integrity to oil and gas leasing," the appeal said.
Castle Valley and other oil companies conducted field research and participated in the process early on only to have the BLM abuse its agency discretion, Sgamma said.
"Through that process, BLM applied stipulations to leases to ensure protection of cultural resources. BLM is supposed to make decisions in an open and transparent manner so it isn’t unduly influenced by special interests, but that’s not what happened in this case,” she said.
Those stipulations require site-specific analysis of potential impacts to cultural resources before any soil is disturbed, Sgamma said.
The appeal was filed Monday before the Interior Land Appeals Board, asking the judges to require the BLM to offer the parcels at the next auction.
Steve Bloch, with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the group will intervene in the appeal and argue that the decision should stand.
"The BLM made the right choice to defer selling oil and gas leases in Utah’s stunning San Rafael Swell, a decision that benefitted millions of Americans and not just a few oil and gas companies," Bloch said.