June 28, 2021
The Honorable Debra Haaland
Secretary of Interior
U.S. Department of the Interior 1849 C St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20240
Subject: Proposed Oil and Gas Drilling Adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Lease No. UTU-81185
Dear Secretary Haaland,
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,900 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former, and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group, we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural, cultural, and historic resources.
We have serious concerns about proposed oil and gas drilling on public lands managed by the BLM’s Vernal District Office (VFO) less than a mile from the boundary of Dinosaur National Monument. According to BLM’s May 2021 environmental assessment or “EA” (see DOI-BLM-UT-G010-2017-0036-EA1https://eplanning.blm.gov/public_projects/74448/200163302/20039932/250046127/Final-Draft-Comment-EA-Appendicies.pdf), the proposed drilling would be authorized under lease No. UTU-81185, which BLM issued sixteen years ago in 2005 for a 10-year term. However, in late July 2015, with less than three months to go before the lease would expire, the lessee requested it be “suspended” and, in effect, paused indefinitely for future use.
Now, six years later, BLM is reactivating the suspended lease to allow drilling to occur in a location that was originally off limits to such activity (i.e., it had a No Surface Occupancy or “NSO” stipulation) in 2005 when the lease was issued. Of utmost concern to us is that the proposed drilling site is located little more than a mile away from Dinosaur National Monument’s most precious paleontological resource, the world famous Carnegie Fossil Quarry.
As historical context for our concerns, President Woodrow Wilson created Dinosaur National Monument by proclamation2https://www.nps.gov/dino/learn/management/lawsandpolicies.htm on October 4, 1915, using his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The stated purpose of that action was to protect the site’s “extraordinary deposit of Dinosaurian and other gigantic reptilian remains”, in part, because lands within the proposed reserve had previously been withdrawn for coal and phosphate mining; and “creation of this monument will prevent the use of the lands for the purposes for which said withdrawals were made.” In light of such incredible foresight exhibited in 1915, it is bitterly ironic today that BLM plans to allow oil and gas extraction so very close to the Carnegie Fossil Quarry.
It should go without saying that worldwide environmental conditions have changed dramatically since BLM issued Lease No. UTU-81185 in 2005. However, what has not changed are BLM’s outdated, industry-friendly leasing practices. Today the impacts of climate change are indisputable and ever-present; and there is a widely recognized urgent need to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet BLM plans to allow an operator to drill for oil so close to an irreplaceable fossil deposit under a resurrected “zombie lease” that should have expired six years ago.
As outrageous as the current situation is at Dinosaur NM, it is not an uncommon occurrence under BLM’s outdated and ineffective leasing policies. Whether intended by BLM or not, its leasing practices allow, invite and enable the industry to “game” the federal leasing system to their advantage, which at times occurs at the expense of important environmental protections. In addition to Dinosaur NM, numerous other park units3https://www.npca.org/reports/oil-and-gas-report have been and are being adversely impacted by BLM’s leasing program. It is well past time for the Department and BLM to live up to their respective mandates and put “conservation first” when managing extractive uses on public lands.
We call to your attention to our previously submitted comments regarding the Department’s review of its oil and gas leasing programs (a copy of those comments is attached). We made a number of common sense recommendations that would eliminate practices such as speculative and noncompetitive leasing, zombie leases and other overly permissive BLM policies, which are no longer appropriate given the extent and severity of climate change impacts occurring today. In brief, our recommendations included the following:
- Eliminate anonymous expressions of interest (EOIs).
- Eliminate noncompetitive lease awards. If no competitive bids are submitted, then the parcels should be taken off the table for leasing opportunities for the next five years.
- Raise lease fees based on a true fair market value evaluation, not just whatever minimal fee bidders may be willing to offer.
- Lease fees should be re-evaluated every five years; and in between 5-year reviews, the cost of leases should be adjusted annually based on inflation.
- Amend the term of competitive leases from “a primary term of 10 years” to “an initial term of 5 years with an option to renew it for an additional 5 years” (still 10 years total). If the lessee takes no tangible and timely steps (such as filing for a permit to survey or to begin operations) to use the initial 5-year term of the lease, then the fair market value cost of the lease should automatically be doubled for the second term.
- If the lessee takes no tangible and timely steps to use the second 5-year term of the lease, the lease will automatically expire at the end of the term. In other words, eliminate loopholes, such as indefinite suspension of unused leases that can be brought back to life years later when the lessee decides it is finally in their interest to drill. END ZOMBIE LEASES NOW!
- To the extent that continued extraction of publically-owned oil and gas is needed to support the nation’s vital economic and security interests, such activity should be limited to parcels identified as having high production potential and low environmental impact. Stop leasing in locations that have low production potential and high environmental risk, particularly locations that pose significant risk to specially protected natural and cultural resources, such as units of the national park system, the national trail system, and the national wildlife refuge system; designated wilderness areas; designated critical habitat for federally-listed threatened or endangered species; areas of critical environmental concern; and significant cultural and archeological sites. These special places, not the mineral deposits on adjacent public lands, are our Nation’s heritage to hold dear, conserve, and pass on unimpaired to future generations.
- Establish automatic no leasing (NL) or no surface occupancy (NSO) stipulations of at least 5 miles (and up to 10 miles if circumstances warrant) from the boundaries of any of the specially protected resource areas listed in the bullet above.
- Raise the cost of reclamation bonds for well plugging, abandonment and site reclamation to be equivalent of the current average estimated cost of restoring similar sites; or to at least $20,000 which GAO determined to be the typical reclamation cost of a “low cost” well.
- Set a firm but reasonable time limit for completing site restoration once a well is decommissioned or abandoned; and disqualify operators who fail to meet their site restoration obligation(s) from new leasing until reclamation obligations have been met.
In closing, as the chief steward of America’s national parks and public lands, we urge you to expeditiously fix the Department’s broken onshore oil and gas leasing program. Please, there should be no more questionable “zombie” leasing scenarios like the one about to occur near Dinosaur National Monument.
Philip A. Francis, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
2 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Unit 77436
Washington, DC 20013
cc: Laura Daniel-Davis, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary – Land and Mineral Management
Shannon Estenoz, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary – Fish and Wildlife and Parks
Shawn Benge, Acting Director, National Park Service
Michael Reynolds, Regional Director, Regions 6, 7 and 8, National Park Service
Paul Scolari, Superintendent, Dinosaur National Monument, National Park Service