WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday announced 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.
Zinke took to Twitter to announce he is postponing the March 13 sale of 63,496 acres of federal land for oil and gas leases in tourist town Livingston, Montana, which is a gateway town to the Yellowstone National Park.
“After talking with residents and local, state and federal officials, we have decided to defer the oil and gas sale around Livingston,” Zinke wrote.
Zinke’s announcement came just four days after he made a similar surprise statement to the Albequerque 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.
Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees federal oil and gas leases, received over 120 protests to the sale and said it will complete an analysis of over 5,000 cultural site 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.
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.
Conservation groups on Monday were skeptical about whether Zinke’s announcement signals greater concern about the impacts of oil and gas drilling on sensitive cultural and ecological sites.
“He’s taking some small sales temporarily off the table - it’s a couple of crumbs,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for watchdog group Center for Western Priorities. “There is nothing in these statements indicating that they won’t be for sale again.” (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici)