Shout Out to BLM NEPA Folks!


I’d like to give a special shout-out to some BLM employees today, who traditionally have labored in relative obscurity.

There have been quite a few news stories saying they “did not look at” this or that, based on plaintiffs’ assertions.  Then because it’s in litigation, we never get to hear the BLM side.. unless we dig into some relatively obscure “response to comments” document.  So this post will be successful if the next time you read a news story that says “BLM’s NEPA did not…”, you consider the fact that well.. maybe.. they actually did.

What reminded me of this was today’s story about the results of some (in this case, sue-and-settle) litigation against oil and gas leasing in California. As per this Reuters story..

The 2019 lawsuit was filed in California federal court by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, who were later joined by Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. It claimed the federal plan to move forward with development ignored the potential harm from oil and gas extraction on groundwater, the climate and seismic activity.

And the solution…

A federal plan to lease over 725,000 acres of Central California land for fracking and oil drilling has been blocked after a federal judge approved a settlement brokered between the Biden administration and environmental groups that sued over the plan The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management agreed in the deal approved Tuesday to take a fresh look at the environmental impacts of the leasing plan, which was approved by the Trump administration in 2019.

is…more analysis.  From the settlement, it looks like they need to do an SEIS with more alternatives (?).  Which isn’t exactly saying their analysis of the alternatives was inadequate.  But maybe legal folks will understand what this settlement says.

Now if you’ve been following these stories (there are many across the west, and they all say the same thing,  “BLM did not consider…” ), you might wonder “what about those BLM folks.. why can’t they do it right? After all, NEPA is a procedural statute, so conceivably even if the BLM  said “this project will extinguish life on earth as we know it” the project could go ahead.  Well maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but you see my point.

My own experience with BLM NEPA folks and solicitors was that they did good work. Take a look at the Central Coast RMP Amendment’s pretty overwhelmingly complete documentation here.

There are 18,229 active oil and gas wells in the 11 counties within the boundaries of the BLM Central Coast Field Office: 110 or roughly 0.6 percent are located on Federal mineral estate. Completion of this proposed RMPA/Final EIS will allow the BLM to resume oil and gas leasing within the planning area, which could result in development of up to 37 new oil and gas wells during the next 20 years, as described in the Reasonably Foreseeable Development scenario.

It also sounds from the news story (plaintiffs’ claims quoted) as if the problem were analyzing impacts.   Without looking at the document, did the BLM actually “ignore” the impacts on groundwater, the climate, and seismic activity?  Even back in my day, the BLM did analyze climate impacts, so I looked into this.

It was easy to find the response to comments for the Sierra Club and CBD on page I410:

Sections 3.6 and 4.6 (Climate Change/Greenhouse Gas Emissions) of the RMPA/EIS provide the regulatory framework, baseline conditions, and provides an assessment of impacts to GHG emissions (a proxy for impacts to climate change) from activities allowed under the RMPA alternatives. The primary GHG impacts that can be reasonably expected to occur are emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels and from releases of CO2 and methane due to oil and gas development and production. Discussions of impacts to other resources affected by climate change appear in the respective sections in Chapter 4 of the Draft RMPA/EIS. As discussed in the assumptions presented in Section 4.6, all activities must comply with applicable laws and regulations and may be subject to review for certain types of GHG emissions by the local air permitting authority. Therefore, utilizing this as a foundation for the analysis presented in Section 4.6, the RMPA/EIS considers current information regarding climate change.

Section 1.2.2 (Planning Approach) of the RMPA/EIS explains that oil and gas leasing and development on Federal mineral estate requires multiple stages of BLM Central Coast Oil and Gas Leasing and Development Appendix I. Comments and Responses to Comments May 2019 I-411 Proposed RMPA/Final EIS environmental analysis and authorization. Environmental review under NEPA is required at each phase. Therefore, future projects would also conduct specific project-level assessments of potential impacts to air, water, induced seismicity and human health; and may conduct Health Impact Assessments. Sections 4.4 (Hazardous Materials and Public Safety), 4.3 (Geology), 4.5 (Air Quality and Atmospheric Conditions), 4.7 (Groundwater Resources), and 4.8 (Surface Water Resources) of the RMPA/EIS provide a detailed analysis of the potential impacts to these resources under the RMPA alternatives.

Regardless of what they analyzed and how,  it sounds as if the BLM folks need to produce more alternatives and reanalyze.  Which can be somewhat demoralizing when you do good work; I’ve been there.   And then you reanalyze, and the court finds something else not quite right in the new analysis.

I’m not sure that that’s the case here, but if you note in the photo, if looks like this EIS is in response to a court order to give more detail on well stimulation techniques, which they did.  And so it goes.

Anyway, here’s a great big shout-out to the BLM folks who do NEPA and analysis work; all of you across the country!  Your work is appreciated..

3 thoughts on “Shout Out to BLM NEPA Folks!”

  1. This is an excellent post, Sharon. The points you make are spot on regarding the superhuman job BLM folks do analyzing projects in spite of a multitude of challenges. Thank you for recognizing that.

  2. It’s impossible to tell whether anything nefarious happened on either side without at least looking at the effects analysis in the EIS. As for “sue and settle,” it’s possible enough to fuel a conspiracy theory that some kind of backroom deal was made so that, even if the EIS was adequate and defensible, DOJ wouldn’t defend it. More likely, DOJ found some flaws in the EIS that it was not confident in defending. The system is set up so that wouldn’t happen if potential plaintiffs raise a concern about those flaws during the NEPA process, and the agency responds appropriately. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    I would say the opposite conspiracy to “sue and settle” is just as likely. Maybe there was a backroom deal to overrule the work that BLMers had done and not include it in the EIS, or to tell the BLMers not to work on certain things, or just to get it done quickly so there wasn’t time to do a defensible job. (The Trump Administration did have a reputation for silencing its scientists -sometimes with a Sharpie!).


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