March 5, 2018 / 9:36 PM / 4 months ago

U.S. Interior chief holds off on federal oil lease sale after outcry

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Monday he has postponed a second federal oil and gas lease sale planned for March in less than a week in response to local opposition to the possibility of drilling near national parks and monuments.

FILE PHOTO: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke steps from Air Force One as U.S. President Donald Trump arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Zinke said the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will remove 17,300 acres out of the planned March 13 sale of 63,496 acres of federal land for oil and gas leases near the tourist city of Livingston, Montana, which is a gateway to the Yellowstone National Park.

“I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study, and appropriately we have decided to defer the sale,” Zinke said in a statement.

The remaining 83 parcels, which cover over 46,000 acres, will be offered for lease via an online auction as planned. The leases last for 10 years.

Zinke’s announcement came just four days after he made a similar surprise statement to the Albuquerque Journal, postponing an oil and gas lease sale planned for March 8 near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO world heritage site which contains numerous Anasazi ruins.

“We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation,” Zinke told the newspaper.

BLM, which oversees federal oil and gas leases, received over 120 protests about the sale and said it will complete an analysis of over 5,000 cultural sites before it proceeds.

In just over a year in office, the Trump administration has taken numerous steps to expand and speed up energy development on federal land.

The BLM last month quietly removed Obama-era reforms to the leasing of federal land for oil and gas drilling in a move to “simplify and streamline” the process to speed up permitting of new lease sales.

The move removed a policy aimed at including input from environmentalists and local tourist industry groups in the process of leasing federal land for drilling, which the oil and gas industry said was time-consuming and redundant.

Environmentalists said the change in policy means that places such as Livingston need to rely on lawyers to help them win a last-minute pardon.

“The Trump Administration could have avoided this debacle if they hadn’t eliminated policies that guarantee local communities a voice in where drilling should and shouldn’t happen,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress.

In southeastern Utah, local environmental and archaeological groups have protested a March 20 auction of around 57,000 acres near the former boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument - reduced by 85 percent last year by President Donald Trump - that is known to contain significant cultural sites.

Zinke has not yet signaled whether he plans to delay that sale.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of industry group the Western Energy Alliance, said Zinke likely felt pressure from communities that “aren’t used to development - how it’s done responsibly to protect the environment while coexisting with recreation.”

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Susan Thomas and James Dalgleish

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