Forest Service and BLM Processes for Oil and Gas Leasing 101

The Ruby Mountains – image – Tom Hilton/Flickr

We recently heard about the Humboldt- Toiyabe decision to not allow oil and gas leasing  in the Ruby Mountains.  One of the reasons was public opinion (which I would have to say, in my experience,  always runs numerically against oil and gas leasing). The other was that there is not expected to be oil and gas able to be profitably extracted there.  Jon asked “if there isn’t, why did they go to all this trouble?” The answer must lie in legal requirements and agency processes.

I reached out to the HT folks, and it turns out they explained the process very clearly in their EA. I still have a few questions I will run down and post later.

The purpose of this action is to determine what lands, as requested by the BLM and located on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest MCRJ Ranger District, would be available or not available for future oil and gas leasing conducted through lease sales by the BLM. For NFS lands made available, the Forest Service would provide consent to the BLM for leasing of lands, along with any stipulations/lease notices to protect surface resources. The need for action is to respond to the Nevada State BLM Office request asking for leasing concurrence and to satisfy the Forest Service’s respective statutory and policy mandates of responding to such requests for the environmentally responsible development of energy resources.

The BLM and Forest Service have shared responsibilities for oil and gas leasing on NFS lands. The BLM is responsible holding sales and issuing oil and gas leases on Federal lands, including NFS lands. The BLM cannot offer NFS lands and issue leases for oil and gas leasing without the Forest Service first providing a consent to lease decision.

Leasing is authorized under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, as amended and modified by subsequent legislation, and Department of the Interior BLM regulations found at 43 CFR 3100. Oil and gas leasing is recognized as an acceptable use of public lands under the Federal Land Policy Management Act. The Nevada BLM conducts quarterly lease sales. Once a parcel is leased, the lessee has the ability to develop the lease by exploring, drilling, and producing all of the oil and gas within the lease boundaries extended vertically below the surface, subject to stipulations and notices attached to the lease (Title 43 CFR 3101.1–2).

Leases are issued for a 10-year period and continue as long as oil or gas is produced in paying quantities. Leasing availability decisions by the Forest Service and leasing issuance by the BLM do not approve any ground disturbing activities. Any future ground disturbing activities proposed following postleasing would require additional NEPA.”

BLM asks, and the FS responds with a NEPA document and decision but after the lease sale if it is sold the actual drilling activities require another site-specific NEPA document. Of note to plan-watchers is the presence  of “NSO stipulations” in the Forest Plan for this area. NSO means “No Surface Occupancy”. The BLM can still lease without surface occupancy as explained here:

A NSO stipulation is restrictive to the surface and no surface drilling activity can occur where applied, however, NSO does not prohibit subsurface exploration and development beneath NFS lands accessed by directional drilling or well spacing from leases on adjacent lands. Oil and gas reserves may be tapped without disturbing the surface through directional drilling or well spacing. For example, where a lessee holds a lease without NSO stipulations on BLM/private lands and also holds a lease on adjacent NFS lands with NSO stipulations, the lessee has the right to extend directional drill legs from nearby leased lands beneath the surface of NFS leased lands with NSO stipulations. Types of activities that can still occur from adjacent leases and extend beneath leased NSO lands include horizontal or directional drilling legs and any of the stimulation or completion techniques (includes hydraulic fracturing) along those legs.

IMHO there’s a very clear description of the Responsible Official’s rationale on page 3 of the EA. We can see that the previous decision to impose NSO stips at the Forest Plan level (they can be included in a plan revision or done separately as an amendment) was a valuable exercise  in advance of this decision- it makes more sense to do at the forest spatial scale than one request at a time.

1 thought on “Forest Service and BLM Processes for Oil and Gas Leasing 101”

  1. Thanks, Sharon for laying out the FS-BLM leasing dance. I’ve not had much opportunity (or desire) to fully understand the process, but here is what I understand. There are three steps (all requiring NEPA) – availability/suitability, leasing and permits. This is an availability decision, and that process is governed by 36 CFR §228.102. There has been debate about whether these decisions should be made as part of the forest planning process (and associated NEPA), and that may have occurred for some plans, but apparently not here, so it had to be done when BLM asked. The Handbook for the 2012 Planning Rule makes that optional for forest planning (§23.23i). It does cite “oil and gas stipulations” as an example of a standard that could be in a forest plan, but does not discuss that in the minerals section.

    But the point of my question was really more narrow (and a little snarky). The article quoted the forest supervisor as citing “unfavorable geologic conditions” as a reason. I don’t see why that question couldn’t have been answered for BLM before any NEPA process was started. (I even wondered if it was being used as cover for giving in to public opinion – gasp.) Going through this again did help me understand why there might be a need for a decision and an objection process because a plan-level suitability decision was being made. (Though I don’t remember seeing anything that said they were amending their plan.)

    You suggested the real question might be whether or not oil and gas is “able to be profitably extracted there.” That could depend on the nature of the stipulations, so I agree that, whether or not a plan makes an availability decision, it should include stipulations as standards to protect the surface resources.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading