Bureau of Land Management moves ahead with plans to allow online oil, gas auctions

A natural gas drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, just west of Wyoming's Wind River Range. (BLM via Wikimedia Commons)

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The Bureau of Land Management, the guardian of nearly 250 million acres of public land, announced it was taking a step that would allow it to conduct oil and gas lease auctions online — a shift that some environmentalists say could limit public participation in the process.

The new rule, announced in the Federal Register this week, gives the agency the flexibility to conduct lease sales over the internet. It’s an authority BLM was granted by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. Before that, onshore oil and gas leases had to be sold during in-person auctions.

BLM said in the Federal Register notice that it recognized “the costs associated with holding in-person oil and gas lease sales and the opportunities for increased efficiency provided by an internet-based system.” As a result, it made this change conducting a pilot in Colorado in 2009.

“Notably, since the 2009 BLM internet-based auction pilot, many state governments’ oil and gas lease sales have moved entirely to online sales, including states with significant oil and gas resources, such as Colorado, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming,” the notice says.

The bureau plans to hold its first auction under this new rule Sept. 20, when it offers up more than 4,000 acres of federal mineral estate in Kentucky and Mississippi, according to a BLM release.

But Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email to FedScoop that she’s “concerned about anything that might limit public participation” in the auctions as the lands “belong to all Americans, and every American has a voice in how they are managed.”

“Until all new leasing is ended to protect our climate and health, Congress and the BLM should be doing whatever they can to ensure that oil and gas leases are sold for market rate and not given away to dirty energy companies — but this should never be done at the expense of public participation in the leasing process,” she said.

Greenpeace  — which led a wellpublicized protest during a BLM auction outside Denver in May — also criticized the move.

“A move to online auctions signals a move in the absolute wrong direction,” said group spokesman Jason Schwartz in an email. “While the world faces the creeping progress of catastrophic climate change, the Obama Administration should not be investigating newer and less transparent ways of selling public lands to the industry that is causing it.”

Meanwhile, the Western Energy Alliance praised BLM’s rule, saying that moving auctions online would save money “as venues and security personnel do not have to be enlisted to handle unruly crowds.”

“The public will still have the opportunity to participate at multiple points in the leasing process, but the actual sale will use up-to-date technology that has been around for over a decade since eBay became ubiquitous,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the alliance, said in a statement.

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