Judge orders more transparency in BLM gas leasing
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Barring appeal, names to be released within 30 days of ruling

A federal judge last week ordered the Bureau of Land Management to change a 20-year-old policy of withholding the names of companies or individuals that nominate parcels of land for oil and gas leasing.


News Generic

 In his February 13 ruling on a disputed Freedom of Information Act request, District Judge Richard P. Matsch ordered the BLM to release within 30 days the names of the companies that nominated parcels of land in the North Fork Valley for oil and gas development.

Before the BLM offers minerals up for lease, a person or company first has to show interest in developing those minerals through an Expression of Interest, which starts the BLM’s process of review to determine if the “nominated” parcel is appropriate for development.
According to the BLM’s policy, set in 1995, “All BLM offices hold as confidential the names of all parties that file an informal [Expression of Interest], even though those parties may not have requested confidential treatment, until two business days following the last day of the competitive lease sale.”
To nominate a parcel of minerals for development, the only information required by the BLM is a mailing address and phone number, a legal description of the parcel’s location and the names and addresses of any landowners who might be affected by the development.
According to the BLM, the reason for keeping the nominating party anonymous is to preserve the position that party has gained in doing the research and on-the-ground testing to determine if the potential yield from a parcel is worth the investment. Sharing the company’s name and interest in a parcel of land, the BLM contends, would give competitors an unfair bidding advantage by revealing that the land is profitable.
In a January conference call with the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners, BLM Colorado deputy state director for energy, lands and minerals Lonny Bagley added, “We don’t disclose the nominators … for specific reasons. We do not want to create a situation where we have collusion of those entities that would have offered those [parcels] for lease. So those remain anonymous until after the lease sale.”
But in June last year, after being denied a Freedom of Information Act request to release the names of the nominators because of that policy, the Paonia-based environmental advocacy group Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and the Western Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court disputing the BLM’s position.
CHC director Jim Ramey says knowing who nominates area parcels for gas development is important when the past activities of a company might inform the way the public can expect a company to act in the future.
In his ruling, Judge Matsch agreed, saying, “[The BLM’s] contention runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process. Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals.”
Match continued, “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.”
Neither SG Interests nor Gunnison Energy Corporation, the two companies responsible for almost all of the natural gas development in the North Fork Valley where the leases were nominated, admit to sending the contentious leases to auction this month.
State BLM director Helen Hankins, however, opted to remove those nominated North Fork Valley leases from the February 15 lease sale because of an outpouring of public and municipal opposition to the proposed development.
The BLM could still appeal the district court ruling, which CHC director Ramey says would “delay the release of information and embark upon a lengthy legal process.” The names of the nominators for the North Fork Parcels still hadn’t been released as of press time.
“This is a victory for everyone who believes the government should do its business in the open, and for everyone trying to protect their community from the severe impacts of oil and gas drilling,” Ramey says. “The public has a right to know who nominated these leases, and we look forward to receiving that information from the BLM.”