If an oil and gas company has proposed to drill on federal lands near you, shouldn’t you be able to find out the name of that company?
Common sense says, “you bet.” But common sense is sometimes a stranger at the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is fighting a legal battle in federal court on behalf of its pals in the oil and gas industry who want that information kept under wraps.
A federal judge has ruled against the BLM and in favor of a western Colorado citizens group, Citizens for a Healthy Community, that has been fighting a proposed 20,000 acre oil and gas lease sale in the rural North Fork Valley and thinks it ought to be able find out who the companies are that want to drill their backyard.
But the BLM has another month to decide whether to appeal the decision by U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch. In both this Colorado case, which has national implications, and as it finishes up a new set of rules on hydraulic fracturing on public lands, the BLM should come down firmly on the side of more rather than less public information.
The decision on whether to appeal could prove to be a critical juncture for the Colorado BLM and its director Helen Hankins, who until some recent reversals have been earning a well-deserved reputation for being too cozy with the oil and gas industry they are supposed to regulate.
As the Checks and Balances Project recently noted:
Since assuming her post in 2010, Dir. Hankins has executed her job as if she were a real estate agent for oil and gas companies. She has proposed allowing drilling on lands near national parks, Denver’s watershed in South Park, agricultural communities … anywhere that industry asked for it.
In addition to the controversy over proposed drilling in the North Fork Valley, a prime area for organic agriculture and viniculture, Hankins has fueled protests with other plans to drill near Mesa Verde National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and parts of a 1,000 square mile region of Colorado called South Park that supplies municipal water to the cities of Denver and Aurora. While decisions on those plans have been deferred in the face of vigorous protests, they could still be revived in future lease sales.
The public’s frustration with the Colorado BLM office was on display last month at meetings of the agency’s resource advisory councils. In comments delivered to the BLM, some 2,000 South Park residents and more than 11,000 Colorado residents called on the BLM to do more careful planning and evaluation of oil and gas impacts on wildlife, recreation economies, and water supplies before making drilling decisions.
In the court case, the BLM has argued that oil and gas companies that nominate federal land parcels for development should not be identified because it would give their competitors an unfair advantage in subsequent lease sales.
In his decision, Matsch reminded the BLM what a “public sale process” means, that competition helps get “a fair price for a lease of publicly-owned minerals.” The BLM ought to consider its responsibilities to the public rather than the industry and take a pass on any appeal.
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.