Recently, e-mails and Facebook posts have been expressing dismay at the thought of oil and gas leases being allowed on U.S. Forest Service-administered lands in the Ruby Mountains. People have been horrified at the possibility of seeing an oil well perched high in the mountains. People and groups have been urging each other to submit comments on these possible leases.
These possible leases have confused me so I went to the Elko USFS office and spoke to Susan Summer Elliott, Minerals Program Manager; and Jenna Padilla, District Geologist. The first question I fairly blurted out was “Why?” Why are these lands being considered for oil and gas leases?
Susan explained the process. Someone, a person or company, has expressed an interest in leasing these USFS lands (shown in red on map). The “Expression of Interest” was made to the BLM, probably along with interest shown in lands administered by the BLM. The BLM then approached the USFS asking the USFS to determine if these lands they administer should be available for future leasing. (The USFS receives very few requests for oil and gas leasing on the forest).
This is where we are at present. The USFS is asking for comments from the public to help them make the decision on whether some or all of these lands should be made available to the BLM for future leasing.
The USFS will prepare an Environmental Assessment and draft a decision on future leasing by the BLM. Around February 2018, this draft decision and final EA will be made available to the public and people will be able to object to the draft decision.
If the USFS decides some or all of these lands should be offered, then the BLM would decide whether to include these lands in their quarterly oil/gas leasing sales. The lands may or may not be leased during the lease sale. Also, an oil/gas company might lease the mineral rights to some of this land but never make a proposal to disturb the land.
Elliott explained that sometimes companies acquire leases to secure mineral rights and block competitors from a possible oil deposit. They might also be planning to drill from outside of the USFS land but want to use directional drilling to tap a reservoir under the USFS lands.
Let’s say a company leases some of this land and wants to place a drill rig and disturb that land. Then the USFS would do a NEPA assessment on the proposed project, when more public comment would be asked for.
The USFS has developed stipulations that would need to be followed by any future oil/gas leasee. The most restrictive is No Surface Occupancy. For instance, any lands with slopes over 40 percent could be leased but no ground could be disturbed. A fair amount of these USFS lands are sage-grouse Priority Habitat, which again, would be protected with No Surface Occupancy, which means no ground disturbance.
Companies might want to lease land to secure mineral rights, even if they cannot place an oil well on it. Also, they would have the lease in case anything changes in the future regarding restrictions. There are also possible waivers and exceptions. The USFS and BLM also have stipulations to protect surface resources such as Inventoried Roadless Areas and mule deer winter ranges.
People have been submitting comments, which is good. Over 8,000 comments have been received in the Elko office, although most of these are copies of form letters. About 150 unique comments have been received. The official comment period ended Nov. 2. People or groups who commented before then will be eligible to file objections to the decision in February.
People are encouraged to still send in comments but they need to be hand-delivered, or mailed, to the Elko USFS office. More information on the possible leasing is available on the USFS Humboldt-Toiyabe web page under the NEPA Projects heading.