NORTH FORK VALLEY – “To the best of our knowledge, this is an unprecedented decision. This is the first time a judge has said [to the Bureau of Land Management], you’ve violated the law by withholding the nominators’ names.”
Jim Ramey, Executive Director of the Paonia-based group Citizens for a Healthy Community, announced what may be a game changing ruling by a Denver federal court last week. U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard P. Match issued a curt, two-page ruling finding that the BLM policy and practice of keeping secret from the public the identity of entities nominating public lands for oil and gas development is unlawful.
The precedent-setting decision stems from a lawsuit filed in June 2012 by the non-profit CHC and the Western Environmental Law Center. The groups filed the suit after the BLM refused to reveal names of those nominating 30,000 acres of public lands in and around the towns of Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford for oil and gas drilling.
“Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate,” said WELC attorney Kyle Tisdel. “The court’s decision is a clear rebuke of BLM’s policy to protect industry at the expense of the public and its ability to fully engage [in] the agency’s decision-making process.”
Federal oil and gas leases are issued pursuant to competitive bidding at a public sale, which is the final step in a process that starts with the submission of an expression of interest (EOI). Until now, BLM policy has allowed the identity of EOI submitters to remain secret until after the lease sale – depriving the public of participating in BLM’s oil and gas drilling decision-making on a fully informed basis.
Judge Matsch rejected the government’s contention that revealing the names of the nominators would give their competitors an unfair advantage at the auction and emphasized that the identity of the nominators is important information for citizens concerned about potential contamination of their water and air during the oil and gas extraction process.
“That contention runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process,” Matsch wrote. “Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals. Moreover, the identity of the submitter may be relevant to the plaintiff and others who may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale.”
“This is a victory for everyone who believes the government should do its business in the open, and for everyone trying to protect their community from the severe impacts of oil and gas drilling,” wrote CHC director Ramey, in a release. “The public has a right to know who nominated these leases, and we look forward to receiving that information from the BLM.”
Ramey told The Watch, “The decision could have big implications nationwide.” He said the BLM has so far had no comment “other than that they are reviewing the ruling and need more time.” The judge has given the agency 30 days to respond.
The government’s argument before the court, according to Ramey, was that revealing nominators’ identities would have ‘a chilling effect’ on the oil and gas business on public lands.
“I hope the case doesn’t get caught up in a one, two or three year appeal,” Ramey said. “We hope the BLM agrees with us that this benefits openness and transparency and that they adjust their policies accordingly.” Ramey also echoed Judge Matsch’s comment that a new open policy would likely result in a better sale price for the public’s minerals.
At press time, BLM Communications Director Steven Hall had not responded to a request for comment.