Forest planning got a lot more complicated in March 1990 when the Forest Service issued regulations at 36 CFR 228.102 in accordance with the 1987 Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and recommendations by a National Academy of Sciences group chartered by the Act. Under these regulations, there are six steps to leasing, and Forest Plans in the 1990s and 2000s addressed the first step, sometimes the second step, and sometimes even a preliminary finding related to the third step:
Step 1: The Forest Service identifies what lands may be available for leasing.
Step 2: The Forest Service authorizes BLM to conduct leasing on specifically identified lands and under certain stipulations (in some cases no surface occupancy, controlled surface use, or timing restrictions). The Forest Service leasing analysis can range from forest-wide to a smaller specifically defined area, with specific binding requirements to each 40-acre area.
Step 3: After parcels have been identified for leasing, the Forest Service verifies that potential effects have been adequately considered, and that leasing is consistent with the Forest Plan.
Step 4: BLM does an assessment, and determines if there are any additional stipulations for a parcel.
Step 5: BLM conducts a sale.
Step 6: BLM issues the lease and begins the permitting process. The lessee must fill out an “application for a permit to drill” (APD) that includes a Surface Use Plan of Operations (SUPO). The Forest Service approves the SUPO after an evaluation of environmental consequences and stipulation consistency.
It’s been challenging for planners to decide how many of these steps to link with the forest planning decision. However, only the first step is truly consistent with the current idea of a broad, strategic forest plan. In dedication to efficiency and economy, many decision-makers may naturally conclude that combining the first two steps is more efficient and economical than keeping the decisions and their supporting analysis processes separate. However, in a number of cases to date, imbedding oil and gas leasing decisions in forest plan revisions has been neither efficient nor economical. In fact, combining the first two steps in a single decision-making process has led to significant delays and increased costs, has been unwieldy to manage, and has confused the public. Since the emphasis on forest planning is being “strategic”, it’s difficult to combine the more detailed analysis and prescriptive oil and gas decision-making.
This has been especially difficult because a leasing analysis requires a “reasonably foreseeable development” (RFD) scenario report. This report provides a quantitative (if possible) description of oil and gas occurrence and development potential, along with well projections, and specific information about probable characteristics of wells and productions. This report can quickly become dated, and the longer a planning process, the greater the risk of inaccurate information.
If we want to streamline planning, it may be better to make the oil and gas leasing decision as a “program” decision outside of forest planning, much like specific road by road travel management decisions are made outside of forest planning.