Public lands: secret energy deals, lack of access in Obama's BLM

Back in the drill-baby-drill heyday of the George W. Bush administration, the Department of the Interior was plagued by nasty oil royalty scandals and cockeyed public lands policies that brazenly favored energy interests over environmental concerns. But now that the Bushies are long gone, is the situation at Obama's Interior all that different? Not really, say various groups battling the secrecy surrounding oil and gas leasing on public lands and campaigning for better public access to those lands. Presidents change, but the culture inside of Interior remains inscrutable.

One of the time-honored bits of inscrutability at the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior agency that manages nearly 40 percent (256 million acres) of the government's land, is to protect the identity of energy companies that nominate public lands to be leased for drilling. As we previously reported, that cozy policy was jeopardized last February in a Denver federal courtroom, when U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard Matsch decided that the backroom procedure "runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process" and ordered BLM to fork over the names of North Fork Valley lease suitors to environmental groups that had filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Rather than let a little thing like a court ruling upset decades of furtiveness, the BLM has responded to this hitch by issuing a new policy, effective at the start of 2014, that allows oil and gas companies to submit their "expression of interest" in certain land parcels anonymously. Since the BLM itself won't know who's expressing interest in drilling the hell out of a particular slice of the public's lands, it won't be able to provide any information under FOIA to any nosy third parties. Neat, huh?

This has gone over so well that 45 organizations, from the Western Environmental Law Center and Citizens for a Healthy Community to Kids Against Fracking and Great Old Broads for Wildnerness, are calling on BLM to reverse course.

"The sale of our public lands for private oil and gas development should be an open and transparent process, period," reads one section of the letter the group has sent to BLM principal deputy director Neil Kornze. "Any policy falling short of this basic principal cannot be maintained."

Meanwhile, a new report from the Center for Western Priorities estimates that more than four million acres of public lands across the West are closed off to the citizenry because of problematic adjoining ownership patterns that create trespassing issues, tribal claims, barriers that haven't been removed -- even private landowners illegally fencing off public rights of way. Colorado has 540,539 inaccessible acres; Wyoming, more than 750,000; Montana, nearly two million acres. The report maintains that there are tools and resources available to fix at least some of the problem -- but Congress has perpetually underfunded one key resource, while agencies like the BLM have failed to keep vigilant about public access.

Grassroots groups encouraged by the numerous reforms promised by Obama's first Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, are now left wondering how much has actually been accomplished in the critical areas of transparency and access. Presidents change, but the BLM? Not so much. More from Alan Prendergast: Army abandons Pinon Canyon expansion plans Have a tip? Send it to [email protected]