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Federal Agency Ordered to Reveal Identity of Corporations Seeking to Lease Public Lands for Oil & Gas Drilling

Court reverses BLM policy of keeping the nominators’ identity secret until after the lease sale

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By: Western Environmental Law Center

DENVER, Feb. 14, 2013 - A federal court ruled yesterday that the Bureau of Land Management (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 ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in June 2012 by the non-profit organizations Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC). The groups filed the suit after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) refused to reveal names of the entities that had nominated 30,000 acres of public lands in Colorado's North Fork Valley 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 the agency's decisionmaking 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 from participating in BLM's oil and gas drilling decision-making on a fully informed basis.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch rejected the government's contention that revealing the names of the nominators would give their competitors an unfair advantage 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. Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals," Judge Matsch wrote. "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," said Jim Ramey, director of CHC. "The public has a right to know who nominated these leases, and we look forward to receiving that information from the BLM."

The BLM announced in December 2011 that 30,000 acres of public lands in the North Fork Valley had been nominated for oil and gas leasing and development. The nominated parcels were included in the BLM's August 2012 oil and gas lease sale; however, due to overwhelming public opposition spearheaded by CHC and WELC, BLM has twice deferred the lease of these parcels, most recently on February 6, 2013.

Western Colorado's North Fork Valley is home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the Rocky Mountain West, and also home to West Elks American Viticultural Area'a 12 wineries. The region's still growing sustainable local economy had been threatened by the nominated BLM leases.

Read a copy of the ruling here: http://www.westernlaw.org/sites/default/files/FOIA_Order.pdf

 

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