Another Round of Oil & Gas Leasing, With Rules Still M.I.A.

This week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a second round of oil and gas lease sales for public lands located in Utah and Nevada. Accompanying the announcement was the release of seven “Instruction Memoranda” (IM) meant to guide leasing in light of the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and in the continued absence of a long-promised formal update to oil and gas leasing regulations. The announcement follows BLM’s October disclosure about planned sales in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

Pump jacks leased to oil and gas developers fragment habitat on public lands in Wyoming.

Bureau of Land Management

With nearly 325,000 acres across five states now up for potential leasing in Spring 2023, the BLM continues to move forward with largely unfettered onshore oil and gas leasing on federal public lands despite the escalating climate crisis. The planned leases come as the agency has yet to deliver promised regulatory reforms that it identified as priorities for action in a November 2021 report. And they also come before the agency has taken any public action to formalize the many fiscal reforms Congress passed into law in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Instead, this week, the BLM released seven IMs meant to guide the oil and gas program in the absence of new regulations as the agency continues to move forward with leasing under an outdated and severely deficient regulatory regime. Expansive in scope, the IMs essentially cover four major operational areas of the federal onshore oil and gas program:

  • Implementation of fiscal reforms to the leasing program required under the Inflation Reduction Act, covering increased rents, increased minimum bid amounts, “expression of interest” fees, higher royalties, an end to noncompetitive leasing, and how the agency will deal with the Act’s hostage provision tying wind and solar permitting to the completion of oil and gas lease sales;
  • Implementation of recommended regulatory reforms contained within the agency’s November 2021 report, covering an approach to combat the leasing of “low potential lands” and how the agency will approach reinstatement of terminated leases;
  • Refinement of earlier guidance that rescinded Trump-era practices affirming minimum public comment periods, the appropriate pool of parcels to consider for leasing, the agency’s lack of authority to offer noncompetitive leases, and their authority to employ a formal lease parcel nomination process; and
  • Clarification of agency policy applicable to drilling permits (APDs) and lease suspensions.

Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act significantly altered historic onshore oil and gas leasing practices for the BLM by tying federal public land renewable energy permitting to those lease sales. Thus, this week’s action by BLM to issue early guidance on how it will approach the added complexity created by Congress is certainly appreciated. Nonetheless, there remains no obvious imperative—legal or otherwise—for the BLM to proceed with preparing oil and gas lease sales in the absence of updated regulations. And, given the Inflation Reduction Act’s overall focus on investments in greenhouse gas reductions, the BLM’s continued silence on how it might limit present and future emissions caused by its coal, oil, and gas leasing programs is glaring.

Thus, in order to realize the momentous promise that was embedded within the Inflation Reduction Act, we continue our call for the agency to act immediately to deliver the reforms it, and major government watchdogs, have been calling for. These include:

  • Formally implementing, via rulemaking, the Inflation Reduction Act’s fiscal policy changes;
  • Ending the practice of leasing lands with little chance of development and improving transparency through better Tribal consultation and public participation;
  • Ensuring DOI and BLM’s management of public lands lives up to the conservation and stewardship standards required by law to ensure that landscapes, wildlife, and critical ecosystems remain protected into the future; and
  • Incorporating a process to assess the climate emissions associated with individual oil and gas leases and operations, by evaluating the cumulative climate impacts associated with expanded and ongoing fossil fuel production.

Failure to formalize these reforms risks BLM’s newly released IMs being tossed in the rubbish bin by a subsequent administration. Our shared public lands simply cannot afford that sort of policy whiplash and the extraordinary ecological and climate damage it can do to landscapes and ecosystems we all rely on for clean water, clean air, health, and general well-being.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.