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Highlights

The development of oil and natural gas resources on federal lands contributes to domestic energy production but also results in concerns over potential impacts on those lands. Numerous public protests about oil and gas lease sales have been filed with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages these federal resources. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which BLM maintains and makes publicly available information related to protests, (2) the extent to which parcels were protested and the nature of protests, and (3) the effects of protests on BLM's lease sale decisions and on oil and gas development activities. To address these questions, GAO examined laws, regulations, and guidance; BLM's agencywide lease record-keeping system; lease sale records for the 53 lease sales held in the four BLM state offices of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming during fiscal years 2007-2009; and protest data from a random sample of 12 of the 53 lease sales. GAO also interviewed BLM officials and industry and protester groups.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 1. To improve the efficiency and transparency of BLM's process with regard to protests of its lease sale decisions and to strengthen how BLM carries out its responsibilities under the Mineral Leasing Act, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to revisit the agency's use of the module for tracking protest information and, in so doing, determine and implement an approach for collecting protest information agencywide that is complete, consistent, and available to the public.
Closed - Implemented
In 2016, BLM officials reported that the agency had considered alternatives to the use of the LR2000 module for tracking protest information and determined that modifying the module would best implement the recommendation. Specifically, in 2015, BLM issued guidance to standardize the collection of public challenge data in its LR2000 module. The guidance requires BLM field offices to enter lease data and records in a standardized manner to ensure that high quality lease sale data is maintained. The guidance introduced a desk reference guide, which includes data entry requirements, including a section on entering protests on oil and gas cases in the LR2000 Public Challenge Module. In addition, in 2013, BLM issued a handbook that provided BLM state offices with standardized guidance related to the receipt, processing, and public display of protests received and protest decisions.
Department of the Interior 2. To improve the efficiency and transparency of BLM's process with regard to protests of its lease sale decisions and to strengthen how BLM carries out its responsibilities under the Mineral Leasing Act, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM, in implementing the Secretary of the Interior's leasing policy reform issued in May 2010, to take steps to improve (1) the transparency of leasing information provided to the public, including information to explain the basis of agency decisions to include or exclude particular parcels in a lease sale and, to the extent feasible, documentation of the role, if any, that protests played in final lease decisions, and (2) the timeliness of lease issuance, without compromising the thoroughness of review.
Closed - Implemented
In January 2013, BLM issued guidance on its new Master Leasing Plan process that requires analysis of leasing decisions for a focused geographic area within a larger resource management plan, includes a public and stakeholder involvement component, and requires development of a decision document for elements being adopted. In addition, in February 2013, BLM updated its guidance on onshore oil and gas competitive leasing that includes practices to improve transparency of leasing information such as requirements for state BLM offices to update external web pages with protest decision information and related documents. To improve timeliness of lease issuance, the updated 2013 onshore oil and gas competitive leasing guidance requires the posting of a lease sale notice 90 days before a lease sale (compared to the prior minimum of 45 days), which according to BLM, will provide a better opportunity for the agency to evaluate and respond to protests prior to the sale and will improve its ability to adequately address protests within the timeframes required for lease issuance under the Mineral Leasing Act.

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