Last week, a broad-based coalition of 45 local and national organizations call on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to make fully transparent the process where private interests nominate public lands for oil and gas drilling and fracking. In a pointed letter to BLM principal deputy director Neil Kornze, the coalition specifically requests that the agency reverse its new policy designed to sidestep a court order requiring transparency in the oil and gas leasing process.
This letter follows a momentous victory for the public's right to know and government transparency last winter, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled that the BLM violated the public's right to know when it refused to release the identity of private parties that nominate public lands for oil and gas drilling leases, through submissions of so-called expressions of interest (EOIs).
But instead of embracing transparency and publicly sharing the information, which the court held the public has a right to know, the BLM changed the rules of the game. In a new policy, starting Jan. 1, 2014, the BLM will no longer require private parties to identify themselves when nominating public lands for oil and gas leasing. The EOI can now be submitted anonymously, circumventing the court's order as well as the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In fact, the government goes so far as to encourage the nominators to not identify themselves: "EOI submitters who consider their name and address confidential should not include that information in their EOI." (See BLM Instruction Memorandum No. 2014-004, Oct. 28, 2013.)
The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC), San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA), and 42 other local and national groups are calling on the BLM to reverse its new policy. In the letter sent Nov. 22, the groups stated, "The sale of our public lands for private oil and gas development should be an open and transparent process, period. Any policy falling short of this basic principle cannot be maintained."
The BLM's eluding of the court order is deeply troubling. In his opinion ordering the BLM to reveal the names of the public land nominators, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch opined, "The identity of the submitter may be relevant to the plaintiff and others who may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale." And the BLM's hiding of the nominator's name "runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process." But the BLM's new policy makes it impossible for concerned citizens to learn the identity of the oil and gas industry proponents seeking to drill and frack on public lands near their communities.
In addition to WELC, CHC, and SJCA, the letter was signed by 42 other organizations, including High Country Citizens' Alliance, Holy Terror Farm and Thistle Whistle Farm.
In June 2012, WELC, on behalf of the community group CHC, filed the FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit that resulted in the Court's favorable ruling. (The organizations were seeking the names of the corporations that had nominated 30,000 acres of public lands surrounding the North Fork Valley in western Colorado for drilling and fracking.)
On Feb. 13, a federal court in Denver reversed the BLM's policy of withholding the identity of the corporations that have requested to lease public lands for oil and gas drilling. Though the case was specifically seeking the corporate nominators of the public lands surrounding Colorado's North Fork Valley, it also challenged the BLM's broader policy, thus implicating all BLM-managed public lands across the nation.
On April 15, the BLM released the names of the EOI submitters that had nominated the public lands at issue in the lawsuit.
On Oct. 28, the BLM issued Instruction Memorandum No. 2014-004. The new policy announces that the BLM will publish information on EOI submissions on the website of the BLM state office where the nominated parcel is located, in an "effort to improve transparency." But the agency also "will advise EOI submitters that the BLM does not require their name and address to be on their submission," thus evading the court order to reveal the nominators' identity to the public.
Submitted by Hillary Johnson, director of communications, Western Environmental Law Center.blog comments powered by Disqus