Today we have better news on the drilling front.
You’ll recall that in April, working with Northern Plains Resource Council and Stillwater Protective Association, we posted an action alert regarding the lease of a BLM parcel in Dean. It was an urgent request for you to file public comment on the proposed lease of a parcel adjacent to the one where ECA has constructed a well pad across the road from Montana Jack’s.
The Stillwater Protection Association and Northern Plains Resource Council worked with their membership to generate letters and support
You responded. According to the preliminary environmental assessment issued by the Billings Field Office of the BLM on May 19, 40 of you sent letters expressing your opposition to the leasing of this parcel.
Well, the verdict is in. It looks like the leasing of the parcel will be deferred past the proposed sale date of October 21, and won’t be considered again until the end of calendar 2015 at the very earliest.
So for those of you who took time from your schedules to write letters, take five minutes to pat yourself on the back. Citizens who take the time to speak to government can have an impact. But after five minutes you need to stop and recognize there is still much to be done.
And for those of you in Carbon County who think this post doesn’t concern, you need to read at least the last two sections, because there’s a lot at stake for you too.
Where we are in the process
The BLM leasing process was spelled out in detail in the previous post, but here’s a summary.
- Request to lease: A company like ECA makes a request to lease the minerals under a parcel of land for which BLM controls the mineral rights.
- BLM recommendation: Guided by a resource management plan (RMP), the BLM field office makes a recommendation on how to proceed.
- Public scoping: Involvement of the community in determining whether there are environmental impacts that need to be considered. This phase ended on April 9. Our community generated “40 letters in opposition to leasing (p. 9).”
- Preliminary environmental assessment: This is where we are today. This document was issued on May 19. It is 109 pages long, and it is full of very detailed language about things that were considered for all parcels in the Billings Field Office during this round. You are welcome to read the entire document if you please, but here is the bottom line. The recommendation is for lease of the Dean parcel to be defered until the RMP is completed because of the following three considerations:
- The parcel is a recovery area for Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout
- The parcel is part of the unincorporated area of Dean, and is closer than is allowed for public buildings
- the parcel has been designated by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality as part of a source water protection area.
- There will now be a 30 day public comment period, after which the environmental assessment will become final.
The decision is to defer leasing until after the next RMP is issued, at which time the lease will be reconsidered.
What does this mean for the future?
It’s likely that we are safe for now. The new RMP will come out sometime in 2015, most likely in the latter part of the year. Once the RMP comes out, all bets are off.
At that point, all requests for leasing that are on file will go into a queue for consideration again. That means they have to go through the same process from the beginning — preliminary EA, final EA, sale. And because there are many deferred leases piled up, that may take awhile.
But this is the part that should ultimately concern you. Based on my discussion with the BLM Billings Field Office, there will almost certainly be mitigations in the new RMP for each of the three stipulations that are blocking the lease this time around:
- The first two, the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout recovery area and the distance from buildings in an unincorporated area, will likely be addressed by allowing leasing with no surface access. In other words, they won’t allow a well to be drilled on the parcel because of these stipulations, but they will likely allow resources to be taken from outside the lease area. Horizontal drilling used in fracking enables extraction from outside the parcel, so it would likely be permitted.
- The third stipulation, source water protection area, is a state designation. According to the BLM Field Office, the state DEQ would then likely require the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) to put restrictions in a permit to address the requirements for source water protection. Whenever the terms BOGC and source water protection get mentioned in the same sentence I tend to throw up my hands and scream. As we’ve often discussed, this isn’t going to happen.
So sometime in late 2015 or 2016 this parcel is going to be put up again, and it’s likely to be leased. At that point we will need to have local restrictions in place to keep our friends at ECA from continuing their path of serial pollution.
Watch out Carbon County!
For those of you in Carbon County who have been ho-humming your way through this post, you need to wake up and pay attention, because the BLM leasing process is going to come back and bite you.
According to the BLM Field Office, about two years ago somebody put up every single BLM parcel in Carbon County for lease. Nearly every one of these was deferred because Carbon County is a prime habitat for the greater sage-grouse.
Once the new RMP is in place, these parcels will all be put up again and go through the process. They will likely all be approved with a no surface occupancy stipulation, which means they will all be available for lease and fracked access.
We’re talking 10,000+ acres here, so we need to be paying attention.
A salute to the sage grouse
So let’s take a one-minute time out to salute our friend the greater sage-grouse, who has been protecting us from ECA on BLM land in Carbon County for two years, and will probably continue to do so for two more.
The bottom line
Even that awesome strut won’t protect us forever. You’ve all done good work, and my particular gratitude to those of you who wrote letters. It’s a nice win, but not a permanent one.
We still have much to do to protect Carbon and Stillwater Counties. You’ve shown you are willing to roll up your sleeves and speak to government to make things happen. More will be required.