Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued an instruction memorandum (IM) revising an Obama-era policy that directed agency field offices to prioritize oil and natural gas leasing and drilling projects outside of the most sensitive greater sage grouse habitat. The IM now says that the BLM does not need to lease and develop outside of grouse habitat management areas before considering any leasing and development within grouse habitat.

The IM was one of six issued to BLM field offices across the West, which focused on key aspects of federal grouse conservation plans that were finalized in 2015. While the other IMs address issues regarding livestock grazing and adaptive management measures, the oil and gas IM is the most substantive and potentially impactful for grouse habitat. It also advances the Trump administration’s goal to increase fossil fuel development on federal lands.

Signed by Robert Jolly, the Interior’s acting assistant director for energy, minerals, and realty management, the oil and gas IM replaces a September 2016 IM that established a sequential prioritization process that called for first focusing oil and gas leasing outside of grouse habitat to minimize fragmentation and impacts to grouse habitat or populations. The new IM clarifies this directive and allows for parcels to be leased within grouse habitat management areas without first leasing parcels in non-habitat areas. Additionally, it states that oil and gas leases issued in grouse habitat prior to the implementation of federal plans can proceed with reasonable and site-specific mitigation measures as conditions of approval. The IM also notes that the agency still considers grouse habitat preservation a priority.

The goal of the new IMs is clarity, as they were created in coordination with states and other stakeholders in response to concerns about the impacts of the federal grouse conservation plans. The BLM stated that these were developed with the goal of improving sagebrush habitat while permitting measured economic and recreational activity. The move is likely praised by the oil and gas industry, which have argued the federal grouse conservation plans unnecessarily restrict energy development. However, conservation groups were quick to criticize the oil and gas IM saying the Obama plans took years to develop and were strong enough to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act. They further argued that the Obama administration had drawn boundaries of the grouse habitat areas to exclude regions with high or moderate oil and natural gas development potential.

The IMs take effect immediately and remain BLM policy through September 2021.