Judge extends deadline for BLM to disclose firms that nominated Colo. tracts

Posted: Mar 14, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, Greenwire
North Fork Valley

A federal judge has given the Bureau of Land Management an extra month to release the names of the oil and gas companies that nominated federal lands for leasing in Colorado's North Fork Valley.

The order from U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch in Colorado was not opposed by the environmental group that last summer filed a lawsuit to force BLM to comply with its Freedom of Information Act request for the names of those that nominated lands included in the agency's August 2012 lease sale.

Matsch last month ruled that the public has a right to know which companies are seeking to drill on public lands, a decision that could upend BLM's long-standing policy of keeping those names a secret until the lands are auctioned (E&ENews PM, Feb. 14).

But in a court filing last week, BLM argued that releasing the names of the companies by mid-March would cause "irreparable harm," because it would effectively eliminate its right to appeal the decision within 60 days. In addition, it said it does not plan to auction the North Fork tracts "anytime in the near future." Plaintiff Citizens for a Healthy Community and its attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center did not oppose the motion.

BLM now has until April 15 to either disclose the names of the two companies that nominated about 20,000 acres in the North Fork or appeal Matsch's decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

"We look forward to the BLM following the law and serving the public interest by releasing this illegally withheld information," said WELC attorney Kyle Tisdel.

Matsch's ruling last month shocked some oil and gas industry officials, who said it sent a chilling message to firms interested in drilling public lands. Nominations for leasing, known as "expressions of interest," have long been treated as trade secrets.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver, last month said she hoped the Justice Department would appeal the ruling.

"This ruling is fairly shocking," Sgamma said at the time. "Exposing that information before a sale would result in less competition in lease sales and, therefore, less return to the federal government as fewer companies would be willing to participate in a process that doesn't protect competitive information."

BLM argued in the case that disclosing the names of companies that nominate parcels would give competitors an unfair advantage when the lands are offered for sale. Such information is exempt from FOIA because it is "commercial or financial" and is "privileged or confidential," BLM argued.

Citizens for a Healthy Community has long fought BLM's plans to auction about 20,000 acres in the rural North Fork Valley, where drilling is opposed by organic farmers, winery owners and local officials (Greenwire, Jan. 28). The agency last month announced it is deferring the parcels to conduct additional review (E&ENews PM, Feb. 6).

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