Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Shale Law in the Spotlight: Overview of the Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Management Plan Reform

Written by Chloe Marie – Research Fellow

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) describes the Greater sage-grouse as a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird unique to North America. Historically, there have been concerns about the extent to which the sagebrush habitat of the Greater sage-grouse has been affected by oil and gas development and its associated infrastructure. In September 2015, however, FWS found that “the threats which caused the Service to initially designate the bird ‘warranted but precluded’ in 2010 had been significantly reduced due to federal and state land use conservation plans.” Therefore, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) announced in a Press Release that the Greater sage-grouse should no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act, but DOI insisted on the need to continue to focus efforts on the Greater sage-grouse conservation measures when developing federal and state land management plans.

In this regard, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued an Instruction Memorandum 2016-143 in December 2016 providing guidance on the implementation of the Greater sage-grouse Resource Management Plan. Instruction Manual 2016-143 draws particular attention to the objective of prioritizing oil and gas leasing and development outside of the Greater sage-grouse habitat management areas.

On December 27, 2017, the BLM released a new Instruction Manual 2018-026 replacing and superseding the prior Instruction Manual 2016-143 developed during the Obama administration. While stating that the new Instruction Manual continues to prioritize leasing outside of the Greater sage-grouse habitat, BLM also declared that applications for a lease outside of the Greater sage-grouse habitat management areas do not need to be considered before those within it. The new Instruction Manual points out that “this policy should allow for BLM to efficiently conduct lease sales and permit oil and gas development while still protecting [the Greater sage-grouse] and [the Greater sage-grouse habitat].”

More precisely, the new Instruction Manual emphasizes that certain leasing stipulations, such as No Surface Occupancy (NSO) and Controlled Surface Use (CSU), can be used as a way to promote leasing outside of Greater sage-grouse higher priority habitat management areas. In addition, BLM also prioritizes leasing applications based on “office workload capacity, first-in/first-out, priority for unit obligation wells, processing the easiest applications first, operator drilling plans, operator proposals for units, potential drainage cases, and other resource values that must be considered.”

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