March 26, 2020

BLM grapples with public participation amid coronavirus pandemic, while some call for lease sales to be postponed

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Tanks (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by blake.thornberry

An oil pump jack in Eddy County, NM.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management scrambled this week to make temporary changes to its lease sale rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while some groups have called for the BLM to halt lease auctions all together until oil prices have rebounded.

The BLM opened a 10-day protest period March 23 for a lease sale of 45,446 acres of public land in New Mexico that’s scheduled for May of 2020. The protest period is the third and final public comment opportunity in the BLM’s lease sale process. While the department is able to accept public comments electronically during the scoping process and after the release of the draft environmental assessment (EA) for a lease sale, BLM typically requires protests to be either hand-delivered or sent by certified mail to the BLM state office in Santa Fe.

On Monday, the first day of the protest period, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order for the state, which instructed residents to only leave the house for essential outings.

After Lujan Grisham’s announcement on Monday, NM Political Report asked the department about the protest protocols during the public health crisis, as the BLM’s rules seemed to be in conflict with the stay-at-home order. The department did not respond, but by that afternoon, the BLM website stated that it would no longer accept hand-delivered protests.

Some were troubled by that development and the impact it may have on public participation in the process.

“What that means is everyone is going to have to mail it early, or spend $30 to overnight it. No one is going to have the full 10 days,” said Judy Calman, director of policy at Audubon New Mexico.

Calman contextualized the rule tweak amid broader policy shifts implemented by President Donald Trump’s administration to curtail public participation in oil and gas activities on public lands.

“Each of those [public comment] processes used to have a 30-day comment period, and Trump got them all down to 10 days,” Calman told NM Political Report. “Currently, the comments for scoping and the EAs you can submit electronically. But you can only submit a protest either in person, or certified mail by the day it’s due. That’s a little harder because it’s now a 10-day period.”

The stay-at-home order only further complicates the issue, Calman said.

“We all have to go to post offices now, when we’re supposed to stay home. I still am sort of risking my health to file this protest,” she said. “It would make more sense [for them] to accept protests electronically during the coronavirus [pandemic].”

By Wednesday afternoon, three days into the protest period, the department had temporarily changed its rules to allow for electronic filing of protests, according to the BLM website. That’s also when the department responded to NM Political Report’s questions.

“The health and safety of the public and our employees is our highest priority, and we continue to follow guidance put forth by the White House, the CDC, and state and local authorities, as we implement teleworking, social distancing and virtual meeting tools,” a BLM spokesperson said via email. “All of our actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees. As a result, the BLM is temporarily restricting in-person public access to visitor centers and public rooms in our New Mexico offices. Therefore, we will only accept comments via mail and email for the May 2020 lease sale.”

The department set up a dedicated email address for individuals looking to submit protests to the lease sale. That email address is blm_nm_leasesale@blm.gov.

Calman, who is planning to file protests for the lease sales of parcels of land that overlap with wildlife corridors identified by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, seemed relieved to learn she could file electronically.

The BLM did not answer questions posed by NM Political Report about why protest comments are not usually accepted electronically, when other public comments are. And when asked about postmark deadlines for mailed-in protests during the public health crisis, the department said it would not be adjusting deadlines for submissions.

“According to information provided on its website, the U.S. Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts at this time. Therefore, the deadline for submissions will not be adjusted,” the spokesperson said.

Oil prices make lease auctions untenable

Meanwhile, a diverse group of organizations have questioned the logic of continuing lease sales at all during this period, when oil prices are at historic lows, and oil companies have signaled a lack of interest in pursuing more extraction operations amid economic uncertainty.

Earlier in March, BLM held an auction for leases on public lands in Utah. Nearly 90 percent of those bids were just $2.00 per acre, the federal minimum. An offshore oil and gas lease sale held last week was the weakest in four years.

Two national organizations, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, released a joint statement March 19 calling for the Trump administration to halt lease sales on public lands for the remainder of 2020.

“In this environment, it is impossible for the American taxpayer to expect anywhere near a fair return on oil and gas leases,” the statement reads. “This is due to more leases selling at the minimum bid amount, or worse, at the even lower non-competitive lease rate.”

RELATED: As oil prices crash, line-item vetoes to state budget coming

Albuquerque-based advocacy nonprofit NM Voices for Children also called for the White House to postpone oil and gas lease sales.

“While New Mexico families are focused on making sure their loved ones are safe and healthy during this fast-moving crisis, other problems are brewing at the state level that may cause pain for years to come. Plummeting oil and gas prices are draining the state budget of funds needed for public safety, health care, education, and more. Actions by the Trump Administration will make this long-term revenue crisis worse,” NM Voices for Children executive director James Jimenez said in a statement.

Jimenez pointed to the fact that New Mexico receives a portion of the royalties generated on oil and gas leases on BLM land. That money supports the state’s public schools.

“The lease rates are based on current oil and gas prices, so clearly any leases sold soon will go at bargain-basement prices. As New Mexico receives a share of the lease revenue, which helps put books in our classrooms and medicines in our clinics and hospitals, we will not be getting full value for our shared state resources,” Jimenez said. “It is simply irresponsible for this Administration to allow leases to be sold at this time in this volatile market when prices are being driven by fights between oil-producing nations rather than normal supply and demand factors. The Administration must do the right thing and postpone these lease sales until prices stabilize. It’s the right thing to do to protect New Mexico’s children and families.”