Last week, Secretary Zinke quietly issued new instructions at the Department of the Interior that will rapidly increase new oil and gas leasing by cutting back on public process and environmental review. The changes speed up how quickly industry can nominate and then lease parcels of public land. They will also make NEPA—the process for environmental review and public input—optional for many decisions.
The new guidelines also end the Bureau of Land Management’s Master Leasing Plans in order to “simplify and streamline” and “expedite” oil and gas leases on public lands. For seven years Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) have helped create balanced plans for how to manage multiple-use land, giving all stakeholders more equal weight in deciding how to take care of shared landscapes and helping to make sure that important landscapes for recreation aren’t needlessly affected. This meant that everyone was sitting at the table and had a say, including, oil and gas, recreation, local business, and environmental groups. We praised MLPs in the past, including one in Moab that was extremely popular among a large group of stakeholders.
By ending Master Leasing Plans, Secretary Zinke will give industry a pass to the front of the line on public lands and effectively shut out the public. The new instructions speed up the process for industry to lay claim to public land while doing away with the public process. Within the next month, industry executives will be able to bid (as little as $2 an acre) for control of public lands through oil and gas leases that will far outlast this administration.
In short, we are pretty concerned about these new instructions. This is one of the bigger issues affecting public lands right now, and these changes will be difficult to reverse once leases are sold. There isn’t a clear way for the public to protest these new rules, and once industry has leased public land, they have control over it for decades – meaning that even if a new Secretary changes the rules, the leased lands are already under private industry control.
Right now, we think the best thing you can do is share your concerns with your members of Congress. Fossil fuel development may have a place on public lands, but development decisions must be made in a way that’s balanced and conscientious about other resource values, and achieving that balance will be much harder with these new rules in place.