Feds pro­ceed with eas­ing re­stric­tions on drilling

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Matthew Brown

B ILLINGS, MONT. » The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion moved for­ward Thurs­day with plans to ease re­stric­tions on oil and nat­u­ral gas drilling, min­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties across mil­lions of acres in the Amer­i­can West that were put in place to pro­tect an im­per­iled bird species.

Land man­age­ment doc­u­ments re­leased by the U.S. In­te­rior De­part­ment show the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to open more pub­lic lands to leas­ing and al­low waivers for drilling to en­croach into the habi­tat of greater sage grouse.

Crit­ics warned that the changes could wipe out grouse colonies as drilling dis­rupts breed­ing grounds. Fed­eral of­fi­cials un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2015 had adopted a sweep­ing set of land use re­stric­tions in­tended to stop the birds’ de­cline.

In­te­rior Deputy Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt said the agency was re­spond­ing to re­quests by states to give them more flex­i­bil­ity in how pub­lic lands are man­aged. He said the goal to con­serve sage grouse was un­changed.

“I com­pletely be­lieve that th­ese plans are lean­ing for­ward on the con­ser­va­tion of sage grouse,” Bern­hardt told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “Do they do it in ex­actly the same way, no? We made some change in the plans and got rid of some things that are sim­ply not nec­es­sary.”

The changes drew a sharp back­lash from con­ser­va­tion groups and wildlife ad­vo­cates, who warned ex­ces­sive use of drilling waivers could push sage grouse onto the list of threat­ened and en­dan­gered species.

“If you al­low ex­cep­tion af­ter ex­cep­tion, that might make sense for a par­tic­u­lar project in a par­tic­u­lar spot, but you add them all to­gether and you have death by a thou­sand cuts,” said Na­tional Wildlife As­so­ci­a­tion vice pres­i­dent Tracy Stone-Man­ning.

The ground-dwelling grouse ranges across about 270,000 square miles in parts of 11 west­ern U.S. states and two Cana­dian prov­inces. Its num­bers plum­meted in re­cent decades.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has vowed to lift ob­sta­cles to drilling, and grouse pro­tec­tions have long been viewed by the en­ergy in­dus­try as an ob­sta­cle to devel­op­ment.

The new plans re­move the most pro­tec­tive habi­tat des­ig­na­tions for about 13,000 square miles of pub­lic land. Those ar­eas — con­sid­ered es­sen­tial to the species’ sur­vival — were a cen­ter­piece of the Obama pol­icy. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also wants to drop some re­quire­ments to pri­or­i­tize leas­ing for oil and gas out­side sage grouse habi­tat.

John Swartout, se­nior ad­viser to Colorado Gov. John Hick­en­looper, said the state is gen­er­ally sat­is­fied with the Colorado-spe­cific pro­vi­sions in the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment’s fi­nal sage-grouse plans. He said changes from the 2015 plans pro­vide more flex­i­bil­ity when devel­op­ment is pro­posed in the bird’s habi­tat.

“They’ve kept the stan­dard high. You can’t have an im­pact on grouse,” Swartout said. “The bar is still ex­tremely high, and it should be.”

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