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The Short Life of The Bureau of Land Management’s Master Leasing Plans
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By Josh Lappen

Outside the protected parks and monuments which define popular conceptions of public land in America, most federal lands are governed under the multiple use mandate. By law, federal land managers are tasked with carefully balancing multiple uses; extractive, grazing, wilderness preservation and recreation. In practice, the multiple use land planning process is often beset by lawsuits as conservationists and industry groups battle over conflicting visions of the same tracts.

The Obama administration, concerned that heightened conflict in the most contested pockets of federal land was obstructing both effective conservation and profitable mineral extraction, responded by crafting a Master Leasing Plan (MLP) program at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to encourage cooperation over land use by competing stakeholders. Over the past year, though, the Trump administration has moved quickly to set the program aside, freezing progress on proposed plans and restarting leasing in contested areas.

After a flawed oil and gas lease conducted in Utah during the last days of the Bush administration tied both the government and the land in question up in court, avoiding confrontation between environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry became a priority for the incoming Obama administration. The Master Leasing Plan program took shape as an advance planning process, a forum for compromises on the future of heavily contested public lands. It was developed to supplement standard land-use planning in areas where fragile ecosystems, popular outdoor recreation, or valuable cultural artifacts overlapped with drilling interest – the federal lands where multiple use conflicts seemed most likely and most severe. Over the years, eight Master Leasing Plans were finalized across three western states.

To industry, the process was redundant due to existing environmental reviews already required for leasing on federal lands. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade group, said that adding further layers of review for conflict-prone lands would only provide “more opportunities for litigation.” She also dismissed the program’s relatively narrow focus on conflict-prone areas. “There’s not a single piece of public land out there that doesn’t have usage conflicts,” she explained. “No matter how much analysis BLM does, they’re always going to get sued.”

By contrast, environmental lawyers like Mike Freeman of EarthJustice say that that the leasing plan system and associated reforms had a significant impact on leasing conflict. “If they strike a reasonable balance, they’re a lot less likely to be sued,” Freeman said, speaking of federal land managers. “There’s always going to be some conflict, but this goes a long way towards reducing it.” Environmental groups believe the program’s results support their good-faith efforts at compromise. “The number of lease challenges dropped significantly” after BLM implemented the program, said Freeman. After the Obama administration reforms, the rate of lease protests dropped by more than half.

The change in administrations has brought oil and gas leasing back to areas once proposed for MLP status. During the second half of last year, large lease sales took place at regular intervals across the Southwest, despite what some industry experts characterize as an oversupplied oil and gas market. On December 12, 2017, a lease sale in Utah’s Green River district offered 74 parcels, more than a 300 percent increase over the previous December’s lease sale in the same district.

Industry, conservation groups, and federal land managers all say they want the same thing: “a more stable, certain process,” in Sgamma’s words. But compromise remains elusive. For industry, a stable process means reliable approval of their applications on a lease-by-lease basis. For conservation groups, it means landscape-level advance planning that excludes drilling in the most contentious areas, even while expediting it in others. With the Master Leasing Plan program suspended, interest groups continue to fight over many of the same tracts of lands as when the program was first conceived a decade ago. And so, Freeman said, “it’s inevitable that we’re going to be seeing more of them in court.”

Josh Lappen is a graduate student at Stanford University, where he studies state climate policy, federal public lands management, and the history of coal resource development. This article is adapted from a longer piece published in the “& the West” blog by Mr. Lappen.

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