If you’re in Stillwater County you may be aware of a comments period on a federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease sale that ends tomorrow, April 9. The purpose of this post is to familiarize you with the BLM leasing process so you can understand whether to comment, and if you do what kind of comments would have the most impact.
This post comes from information provided by the BLM office and background data available on public web sites.
Background: The BLM leasing process
The BLM leasing process is governed by a resource management plan (RMP) and associated environmental impact statement (EIS). Together they provide a framework for managing BLM-administered lands and federal minerals. Stillwater and Carbon counties are part of the Billings BLM field office combined with the Pompeys Pillar National Monument, and are managed under an RMP originally developed in 1984.
The existing RMP is currently being revised. When complete the revision will guide management of approximately 434,000 acres of BLM land and 1.8 million acres of federal mineral estate managed by BLM for Big Horn, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties in Montana, and portions of Big Horn County, Wyoming.
This revision is important, since the RMP is only updated every 25 years or so. The process is well defined and underway. The public comment period ended in June, 2013, and a final document should be completed by September, 2015.
A current draft version of the 2800-page RMP is available online at the BLM web site. Of particular interest is Appendix C, which deals with Oil and Gas Stipulations. Key stipulations in the draft include the disruption of the habitats of endangered species, most notably the sage grouse, which, according to the BLM, is “the critical thing the RMP is looking for,” but also designated reservoirs with fisheries, 100-year flood plains, and others.
Leases on BLM land are put up for sale when there is a request from a company that wants to exploit mineral resources. The process is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.
To meet NEPA requirements federal agencies prepare a detailed statement known as an environmental assessment. EPA reviews and comments on environmental assessments prepared by other federal agencies, maintains a national filing system for all assessments, and assures that its own actions comply with NEPA.
The environmental assessment involves two steps:
- Public Scoping: This step involves the community in determining whether there are environmental impacts that need to be considered. These impacts might include:
- Significant natural resources such as ecosystems and threatened and endangered species;
- Commercial and recreational fisheries;
- Current recreational uses of the land and waterways;
- effects on water users;
- Effects of potential controls on current lake and waterway uses such as flood risk management, commercial and recreational navigation, recreation, water supply, hydropower and conveyance of effluent from wastewater treatment plants and other industries; and
- Statutory and legal responsibilities relative to use of land and water.
2. Preliminary environmental assessment: Public review of preliminary environmental assessment. This process takes 30 days before the final environmental assessment.
The current BLM lease under consideration in Dean
Available parcels in Montana during any leasing sales period are mapped and listed on the BLM web site. You can click through to get a listing and map for each of the 10 areas in the state. There is also a listing of all leases currently for sale in the state. In the current listing there are 75 total leases for sale in the state. Only one of these is in Stillwater County and none is in Carbon County.
The lease for sale in Stillwater County is in Dean, on County 419, the road from Nye to Fishtail. For those who wish to look in more detail, map coordinates are 5S, 16E, Section 13. This land is adjacent to the current ECA lease. It is a split estate, which means that the BLM manages the mineral estate of the property, and the leasing will occur without input from the surface rights owner.
The commenting period that ends on April 9 is for the public scoping period. If you are going to comment you should be looking at the stipulations in Appendix C of the RMP — items such as habitats of endangered species, water usage, and others listed above. If you are aware of private structures on this land that the BLM may not be aware of, you can include those as well. General arguments that you might make on the appropriateness of oil and gas drilling are not relevant for this round of comments, except as they are listed as stipulations in Appendix C.
The preliminary environmental impact statement will be released on May 19, with BLM findings. At that point there will be an additional 30 day comment period. At that point, if you disagree with the EIS you can comment in a more specific way about the findings. If the decision is made to go forward, the actual lease will be put up for sale on October 21, 2014.
It is important to note that the current recommendation (see page 3) is for the lease to be deferred until the RMP is completed. This means that this lease would not be put up for sale in the October 21 round. The reasons are that the area covered by the lease is a Yellowstone cutthroat trout recovery habitat, and the unincorporated town of Dean is included in the lease parcel. The Billings BLM office is required to complete their input into the RMP by December, 2014, with the national RMP is to be completed by September, 2015, so the recommendation is that the lease sale will be deferred at least until then.
This does not mean you should be complacent. Consider this Round 1 of a long battle. The federal Council of Environmental Quality has published an excellent Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA that will give you more insight into this process. Don’t sit around wondering what you can do to help — this is an opportunity to make your voice heard.
When you coment, first go to Appendix C and read through the stipulations. There are over 200 of them. These need to be the basis for framing your comments. Use the words the BLM uses in phrasing the stipulations.
Subject Line: October 21, 2014 Oil and Gas Lease Sale Comment
Mail: Bureau of Land Management
Billings Field Office
Attention: Craig Drake
5001 Southgate Drive
Billings, MT 59101
(Note: if you’re reading this you have email access. I recommend you send your comments electronically to make sure they get to the BLM before the deadline.)