Despite mixed opinions regarding politics and public land processes, the Grand County Council voted Sept. 19 to send a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke supporting the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Master Leasing Plan (MLP) process.
BLM representatives have said that the Moab MLP — completed in 2016 and encompassing 785,000 acres of public land — aims to guide “responsible” mineral development around Moab while also protecting natural resources and recreational opportunities.
The council’s letter — citing an upcoming lease sale within the Moab MLP area slated for March 2018 — urges Zinke to uphold the decisions made by the “locally-driven” plan, which includes oil and gas stipulations like no surface occupancy and other protections, they state, that would limit impacts on the recreation economy.
“Given the investment of time and energy by so many crucial stakeholders in achieving a positive outcome with the MLP, it is critical that BLM now implement the MLP in accordance with the protections that were adopted in that plan,” the council states. “This means including the measures that are designed to protect our area’s national parks, recreation resources, and scenic public lands while also supporting the oil and gas development that is important to our community.”
A majority of council members supported the letter, including Jaylyn Hawks, Mary McGann, Greg Halliday, and Evan Clapper. Voting against the letter were council members Rory Paxman and Patrick Trim, with Curtis Wells abstaining.
Wells told The Times-Independent that while he owns no personal interest in mineral development, he does work in natural resources and decided to abstain from voting.
During the meeting, Wells told his fellow council members that the Moab MLP process has been unfairly categorized as a “balanced plan.” Instead, he called it a “highly aggressive regulatory planning order” that represents losses in economic output, state and local revenues, as well as short term and long-term employment.
“The Master Leasing Plan — although it has the stamp of balance it accomplishes the exact opposite,” Wells said. “Natural resource development, as defined in the Master Leasing Plan, [is] constrained.”
He argued that fifty-seven percent of the surrounding lands — or roughly 500,000 acres — were pulled from surface use by the Moab MLP. Regulations like this, he said, contribute to lower mineral lease revenue for counties.
“Everything is blamed on the market, the market is what’s responsible for mineral lease revenues growing and subsiding. The problem I have with that is that’s one dynamic but the regulation on land users, [the] red tape, and basically harming their ability to do business obviously affects their ability to generate revenue and jobs for the community,” Wells said.
Ashley Korenblat, of nonprofit advocacy group Public Lands Solutions, prepared the letter for the council’s potential support. She told the council that the U.S. Department of the Interior is currently conducting a review of energy processes that will conclude by the end of September.
Korenblat attributed mineral lease revenue losses to the market, arguing that once it becomes more viable for the natural resource industry to increase production, the MLP will help guide decisions on local lands.
“Every county in the west right now is suffering from mineral lease decreases; every county, whether they have a Master Leasing Plan or not. And that is basically because of the price,” Korenblat said. “But when prices to go back up, and a drill rig comes to Grand County, we want that operator, that company to be able to go to a site and know what the deal is there.”
She considers MLPs “planning tools” which guarantee certainty to all industries regarding the future development of public lands, ensuring that both mineral extraction and recreation can “coexist.”
“A lot of people do recognize that planning does allow for both [mineral extraction and recreation] to coexist. This is not stopping oil and gas, it is simply zoning,” Korenblat said.
During the Sept. 19 meeting, Wells made a substitute motion to schedule a council workshop on the Moab MLP, offering council members more time to “deliberate.”
Council member Trim — the newest face on the council — supported that motion, stating that he couldn’t make a decision on this letter “with a half hour discussion.”
Although Paxman and Trim supported Wells’ motion, it died without a majority vote.
Council member McGann stated that this letter affirms the majority opinion of past councils, who worked closely with the BLM and other stakeholders through the years’ long MLP process.
“All we’re saying [in this letter] is what was put in place then, we are still approving,” McGann said. “There was a majority [of council members] that did agree the Master Leasing Plan was a document that should be upheld. In fact, it’s considered an exceptional plan by many people ... It’s been held up as an example of a good plan in the nation.”
The Sept. 19 meeting concluded with a four-person majority vote, sending a positive endorsement of the MLP process to Secretary Zinke.