The DeChristopher Effect: How Years of Controversy over Drilling for Energy in the Southwest Could Result in Compromise

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On December 19, 2008, during the last few weeks of the Bush Administration, an oil and gas lease auction captured the nation’s attention. The auction took place on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the doorstep of two of our most iconic national parks in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands. The potential effects of drilling so close to these parks would have been a shock to park visitors and the local economies they support: rigs visible from park trails day and night, constant noise, and uncertain and unstudied air and water impacts.

For some local residents and park supporters, this lease auction was the last straw in a series of actions by the BLM to accelerate energy development at the expense of other important resources and uses of our public lands while dismissing the concerns of the National Park Service and public land advocates. What many people remember about that day was the act of civil disobedience by a University of Utah student, Tim DeChristopher, who bid on several of the lease parcels with no intention of paying for them to protect these national parks and prevent industry from obtaining the leases. He served jail time for the act, but shone a spotlight on a flawed BLM oil and gas planning process.

What most people probably do not remember or never knew about the 2008 leasing incident is that the BLM was simultaneously pushing through six plans around the state of Utah that left many of its spectacular landscapes, including many places adjacent to our national parks, open to oil and gas leasing and development and other potentially destructive uses. The process was designed to enable energy development on our public lands rather than take a balanced approach to ensure that sensitive areas with important cultural and natural resources and recreational uses were considered equally.  What’s more, the six plans included several egregious parcels adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks—parcels that had earlier been considered off-limits for energy development following discussions between the park service and the BLM. That these off-limits parcels could be included in the six plans at such a late date demonstrated a clear flaw in the BLM leasing plans at that point.

In the days leading up to the lease sale, NPCA joined six lawsuits with nine other groups to force the BLM to adequately address their federal environmental requirements and essentially fix the flawed plans.  NPCA and others succeeded in getting the BLM to remove the most controversial parcels in the days before the lease sale, though what was offered was still enough to spark DeChristopher and others into firestorm of protests and legal challenges. In early 2009, the incoming Obama Administration took these grassroots concerns seriously. The Department of the Interior agreed to remove an additional 77 offending leases from the Moab auction, and one of Secretary Salazar’s first orders as head of the Department of Interior was to suspend oil and gas leasing subject to a comprehensive, interagency review of the process.

In 2010, a direct outcome of the interagency review was the creation of a “smart from the start” oil and gas leasing process by the BLM called Master Leasing Plans (MLPs). The idea behind MLPs is to fix the issues with the existing, large-scale BLM plans by studying and discussing impacts to a focused planning area where the most potential conflicts exist between oil and gas development, recreation, and conservation. The process is designed to ensure proper environmental consideration and public input in sensitive areas, specifically around National Park Service sites, where lands “could be adversely affected by BLM-authorized development.”

NPCA has supported the MLP process from its introduction in 2010, believing that if stakeholders engage in the process before leases are granted, the interests of conservation and recreation can be protected while developers can feel more secure that their projects will progress with less opposition. NPCA’s new report, A Responsible Process: Using Master Leasing Plans to Balance Sensible Energy Development and the Protection of National Parks, emphasizes how this new approach to planning first and leasing later resolves issues at the front end of the process and can minimize potential litigation down the line.

This new process is already underway in Utah, studying potential development impacts on a landscape near  Arches and Canyonlands. NPCA would also like BLM to implement this more careful review on lands developers are eyeing near Utah and Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument, New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park and Yucca House National Monument. While this process will not stop oil and gas development in the Southwest, it could produce better decisions on siting energy development, significantly reducing the impacts on air, water, noise, and views that have long concerned land advocates and sparked Tim DeChristopher’s actions.

In our report, NPCA encourages the National Park Service to embrace the BLM’s new review process as an effective approach to protecting park resources, and to advocate strongly for MLPs where park lands are potentially threatened. It took years of work by passionate advocates to address responsible land use on these resource-rich lands—resulting in everything from lawsuits to jail time—but with smart planning and forethought, the Park Service and the BLM can work together to find a reasonable balance between energy development, recreational use, tourism, and scenic beauty.

About the Author

Nick is manager of NPCA's Landscape Conservation Program

  • Nancy Knipe

    The picture you use here in your article is an illustration that rigs do NOT belong in natural areas, that they are a visual and environmental intrusion, and no amount of “compromise” makes it right.

    Thank you, Tim DeChristopher, for your bravery and insight.