County votes 4-3 to support BLM Master Leasing Plan

by | Nov 19, 2015 | Master Leasing Plans, MLP-Moab

County votes 4-3 to support BLM Master Leasing Plan alternative that is more restrictive to mineral development

By Molly Marcello, Staff Writer

November 19, 2015

The Grand County Council, in a split vote Nov. 17, has approved a list of recommendations it will ask the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to consider as the agency finalizes its Moab Master Leasing Plan (MLP). BLM officials have said the MLP, which covers approximately 785,000 acres of local public lands, will provide a guiding document for land-use decisions, including leasing stipulations, management practices and development constraints for new oil, gas and potash leasing for the next 15 years.

The council’s final recommendations focus on the BLM’s “preferred alterative” – Alternative D – but ask for greater flexibility related to potash leasing areas and request that the council’s management objectives from the Bishop Public Lands Initiative as related to oil, gas, and potash be incorporated into the plan.

Under Alternative D, both oil and gas leasing and potash leasing would be allowed, but the BLM would preclude mineral development in many areas with high scenic quality, some high-use recreation areas, specially designated areas, and in other areas with sensitive resources, according to the draft MLP. The alternative also applies other restrictions on potash and oil and gas exploration and would block mineral development on BLM lands adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

“The Grand County Council believes that the recommendations for inclusion in the MLP will enhance the ability of the extraction and the outdoor recreation industries to continue to work together in harmony while also protecting valuable environmental and other assets,” the approved council letter states. “These factors are critical to the future economic, social, and environmental well-being of Grand County and its citizens.”

Council members Elizabeth Tubbs, Jaylyn Hawks, Mary McGann and Chris Baird voted to approve the recommendations outlined in the letter. Council members Lynn Jackson, Ken Ballantyne and Rory Paxman voted in favor of a motion that failed earlier in the meeting. That motion recommended support for the BLM’s “No Action” Alternative A, the least restrictive option regarding regulation of mineral extraction among the six proposed alternatives included in the draft MLP.

Before commenting on the MLP discussion, Jackson addressed an ethics complaint that was filed against him last week accusing him of violating state and county law by failing to disclose a potential conflict of interest related to his consulting work with the potash industry. Jackson said in the meeting that he has no financial interest in potash, has been consistently within state and county ethics law, and will continue to engage in discussions regarding such issues unless the Grand County Attorney, who is reviewing the complaint, says he cannot.

Jackson then told fellow council members that a potential $2 billion loss in economic output and revenue exists between the BLM’s No Action Alternative A and the preferred Alternative D.

“We’re taking a huge risk here. A $1.78 billion economic output loss [and] a $277 million potential loss in revenue from this development. That’s over $2 billion that we are at risk for a potential loss,” Jackson said. “I can tell you this MLP is not good from a financial standpoint for Grand County in the long run. I think ultimately it will have a very chilling effect, with the potential for a significant loss of revenue, jobs and economic output in our area, with no impact to other industries.”

While Tubbs said that she appreciates Jackson’s comments, she told The Times-Independent on Nov. 18 that the potential economic loss is a complicated question that is largely dependent on the market prices for oil, gas and potash.

“It’s a hypothetical based on ‘if everything that could go right would go right,’” she said. “More than anything I think the worldwide markets for these minerals are going to be the real determinant on what gets developed and how much gets developed.”

Baird said the BLM’s socioeconomic projections in Alternative A are based on a maximum development scenario under which all the proposed potash drill sites would be developed. He said that is highly unlikely to happen, given potash’s low market trends and the 15-year life of the MLP.

“The maximized potash scenario is so incredibly remote in the next 15 years that it’s far more likely the earth would be hit by an asteroid,” Baird said. “We’d be lucky to have a handful of potash wells operating in the next 15 years. In the 15-year duration of the [MLP] plan, the two [potash leasing areas] are way more than enough to last for a couple-hundred years.”

But Jackson argued that mineral development will be considerably constrained through the MLP. He said he found few issues that would be corrected through Alternative D and does not know why the BLM is going through the MLP process in the first place.

“I searched and searched for any quantifiable impacts from Alternative A that Alternative D would fix, and the only two sections [with quantifiable data] were air quality and socioeconomics,” Jackson said. “Where’s the quantification of impacts to wildlife? Of impacts to soils? There’s just no hard quantitative information that there’s going to be an impact from A to D, so then why are we doing this? We’re not mitigating impacts, we’re just developing a policy purposely set up to constrain mineral development.”

But Tubbs sees the MLP as a document regulating mineral development so that two important industries — outdoor recreation and mineral extraction — can co-exist in the local landscape.

“The primary concern that I see for the council is to make sure that we safeguard the things that are important to our community now and in the future. To me, that says we do need to have some way of ensuring that the outdoor recreation industry can continue to thrive because [it] is so much the lifeblood of our economy in the Moab and Grand County area and will continue to be that way,” Tubbs said. “At the same time we also have an important economic contribution being made by all of the mineral extraction industries. I think most of what the MLP is aimed at is having regulation of some sort [and] ensuring both of the industries can continue to thrive in the county.”

The MLP planning area encompasses most of Grand County south of Interstate 70, including areas surrounding Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Those parts of the county have been identified to be of high importance to the recreation and conservation communities.

In the past year, the Grand County Council’s decision regarding which MLP alternative to support has proven contentious. In the fall of 2014, the council voted to send a letter to the BLM supporting the No Action Alternative A. But in February 2015, after new council members Baird, Hawks and McGann took office the issue was brought back to the table and the council voted 4-3 to rescind the previous council’s letter endorsing the No Action alternative.

Ashley Korenblat, who owns Western Spirit Cycling in Moab and has been active in the MLP process, praised the council’s final decision on Tuesday night.

“Tonight’s vote was a victory for everyone in Moab,” Korenblat said. “The Grand County Council recognized the BLM’s thoughtful process to strike a balance between responsible oil and gas development, potash mining, and the protection of recreation resources on our public lands.”

According to the BLM, there is also strong interest in the MLP planning area from companies that would like to lease the land for oil, gas and potash exploration.

Megan Crandall, Utah BLM’s external affairs chief, told The Times-Independent in September that the federal agency began utilizing MLPs in May 2010 in an attempt to reduce conflict among a variety of user groups.

“[The MLP was launched] to address a leasing system that was close to the breaking point with nearly half of all proposed parcels receiving community protests and a substantial proportion resulting in litigation,” she said. “The plans establish a framework for determining which areas are appropriate for responsible exploration and development of oil and gas resources while protecting the area’s conservation resources.”

Written or emailed comments regarding the MLP will be accepted by the BLM until Monday, Nov. 23. The preferred alternative is available in its entirety at the BLM’s website: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/MLP.html. Comments may be mailed to: Bureau of Land Management, Canyon Country District Office, Attn: MLP Comments, 82 E. Dogwood Ave., Moab, Utah, 84532