Uproar over federal drilling leases next to parks
To me, the deciding factor in exactly how horrible of an offense this is on part of the Bush Administration depends on whether these parcels were nominated by industry for the lease sale, or whether the BLM itself put these parcels up for lease.
The vast majority of leases are nominated by the oil and gas industry for regular (quarterly) lease sales. The BLM is a completely passive participant when this is the case. If a company nominates some parcels, they go up for auction. If this was the case for the areas next to the parks, this is not a “Bush administration ‘fire sale.’” (Unless, of course, if someone within the government asked industry to nominate these parcels. But if this was purely an issue of industry interest, the Bush administration had nothing to do with these parcels being nominated).
However, if the BLM itself nominated these parcels and put them up for auction, which it can do (see Roan Plateau), then there definitely was collusion by the Bush administration and it makes this intentional and quite despicable. One of Sierra’s quotes makes be believe this is indeed the case:
Roy said that when he asked Selma Sierra what was going on, she replied: "We added some tracts, sorry we didn't notify you.”
If industry did nominate these parcels, I fail to see how they would be added after the fact. I would guess that all the industry-nominated leases were submitted, then Sierra got a call from Washington telling her that these controversial parcels would also be added to the list. Yes sir Mr. Cheney, sir!
(However, I can’t let the Park Service get away with this talk about being “shocked.” They should not have been surprised in the least. These areas had been leased before. It’s not like BLM is opening up new areas for development. The Park Service knew darn well that any lease sale these parcels could be nominated and leased at any time.)
Okay, with that out of the way, let me try to argue that managing with buffers makes no sense from a land management standpoint and that BLM would have a hard time denying these leases from a legal and consistency perspective.
I guess it’s quite obvious that the lands the National Park Service want excluded from oil and gas development are not national parks and are not managed by the NPS. What’s the point of a National Park boundary when it seems some folks want surrounding lands managed like a National Park? So let’s say the government adds a 10-mile buffer on public land to every National Park, which would receive park-like restrictions. So then would we need another buffer to protect values of that buffer? An extreme question maybe, but can’t you see how buffers can be never-ending?
The government would be heading down a very slippery slope and set a precedent by buffering National Parks in Utah. The Utah BLM State Director is right that no policy exists for this, and there’s a reason for that. Why do you think there has never been this kind of buffer applied in the US? Because this has been discussed in detail before (even in environmentally friendly DOI’s such as Bruce Babbitt’s) and they’ve come to the realization that it’s infeasible and doesn’t make sense. Let’s slide down this slope, shall we? Let’s say we buffer all National Parks. Why should it stop there? Don’t State Parks have scenic values that warrant protection? What about National Wildlife Refuges? Wilderness areas? Wilderness Study Areas? Come on folks, these special designations apply to what is inside of these areas, not what is outside. Managing for values outside the special area opens a whole new can of worms in public land management. In addition to oil and gas development, should we close these areas to vehicle travel? Rights-of-way? Any other actions that would be visible looking outside from inside the park?
All stipulations on oil and gas development on federal minerals must be developed within a land use plan, BLM Resource Management Plans, to be exact. Not one RMP has these stipulations for buffers. If lands are not closed in an RMP, they are available for leasing and development. So BLM would have a very hard time making the case that these areas should not be leased. In fact, an oil or gas company would have grounds to sue the BLM for making an arbitrary and capricious decision to close those areas to development outside of their normal process.
The best way to handle this issue is to use the tools BLM has in its tool box to protect scenic values. All BLM lands have a Visual Resource Management (VRM) Class designation. VRM Classes range from Class I, which is extremely restrictive and is typically only used for wilderness areas and would allow only very minor modifications of the landscape, to VRM Class IV, which would allow a strip mine. A VRM Class II designation would allow for minor modifications of the landscape. Under this designation, BLM could require oil and gas operators to hide their infrastructure around topographic features and/or camouflage. This would be the best way to protect the viewshed from the park onto BLM land.
I agree looking beyond the arches in Arches National Park and seeing a gas well stinks. And I fully agree that if these parcels were put up for auction by the BLM and not oil and gas companies, this is yet another Bush Administration give away. However, I don’t think that closing a 10-mile buffer around the parks to oil and gas development is a logical solution for this problem.