Secrecy of nominators deemed unlawful
Federal judge orders identity revealed for oil, gas leases
Originally published 2013-02-21
A recent court ruling is icing on the cake for those who oppose efforts to lease more than 30,000 acres of land for oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.
Not only did the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opt to defer leasing of those parcels earlier this month, but two environmental organizations last week scored a precedent-setting win in a lawsuit that arose from the nominations.
The recent court decision may not only put an end to conjecture about the person or people behind the controversial North Fork nominations, but it may also reverse the BLM’s current policy of keeping secret the names of nominators until after a lease sale.
U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch ruled last Wednesday that the BLM’s policy is unlawful.
Agency officials have long maintained that revealing the names of the nominators would give competitors an unfair advantage, and keeping those nominators’ names under wraps until after a sale ensures that the public gets a fair return for lands that are leased.
“The alternative would be, if you have that information available, what would stop companies from grouping together (to collude during bidding)?” BLM state spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo posed when contacted late last week. “It ultimately may drive the numbers that you get from the bidding process down.”
Judge Matsch, however, sided with Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), indicating that the identity of the nominators is important information for citizens concerned about potential contamination of water and air during the extraction process.
“That contention runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process,” Matsch wrote of the BLM’s current policy. “Moreover, 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.”
Federal oil and gas leases are issued pursuant to competitive bidding at a public sale, which is the final step in a process that starts with the submission of an expression of interest, or nomination.
The BLM announced in December 2011 that 30,000 acres of public lands in the North Fork Valley had been nominated for oil and gas leasing and development. In response, CHC filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the names of the nominators. BLM officials declined to turn over the information, and speculation erupted about who may be behind the nominations.
The nominated parcels were originally included in the BLM’s August 2012 oil and gas lease sale.
In early 2012, the two biggest players in natural gas extraction in the North Fork Valley told the Times that they had each nominated a relatively small number of acres included in the proposed leases. Officials with Gunnison Energy Corp. and SG Interests said they were not behind most of the nominated parcels — especially the most controversial ones, near the municipalities of Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford.
Unable to obtain the names of the nominators, CHC and WELC filed suit against the BLM in June of last year.
The BLM eventually removed the controversial parcels from the August 2012 lease sale, amid continued public outcry. But just when it appeared that the agency was moving to lease about 20,000 acres of the 30,000 acres in the North Fork that were nominated, BLM leaders again deferred the parcels from a lease sale earlier this month.
“We recognize that there’s still a great deal of work to do with regard to these unleased lands, that are still nominated and are sitting out there on the table,” said CHC Director Jim Ramey. “But I think this lawsuit is an important victory not just for us but for every community across the West that’s impacted by oil and gas drilling.”
To date, the individual or individuals behind the controversial nominations remains a mystery. But that may soon change.
Judge Matsch’s order gives the BLM 30 days to comply.
“Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate,” said WELC attorney Kyle Tisdel in a prepared statement. “The court’s decision is a clear rebuke of BLM’s policy to protect industry at the expense of the public and its ability to fully engage the agency’s decision-making process.”
Late last week, BLM officials were mum about what the ruling may mean for them — and whether they plan to appeal.
“We’re still at the point where we’re reviewing it,” spokeswoman Lacayo said.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com)