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Indy Environment: The inexplicable search for oil and gas in the Ruby Mountains continues

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

The Indy Environment newsletter breaks down reporting on water, public land and development. Sign-up here to receive the newsletter in your inbox. For suggestions, criticisms, or tips, email [email protected]

History repeats itself, though usually not in a matter of months. 

Federal land managers have received a new round of nominations to open up about 88,000 acres of land within the Ruby Mountains to potential oil and gas exploration. Who filed them? Great question. It's anonymous.

These are different nominations from the 54,000 acres that an oil and gas speculator asked to open up in 2017. The Forest Service denied that request in March after its analysis weighed “unfavorable geologic conditions” for drilling against the risks that development posed to high-quality wildlife habitat and recreation in one of Nevada’s most prized ranges. 

The Forest Service, which received about 14,000 comment letters, most of them opposed to leasing, faced intense public pressure from a coalition of environmentalists, hunters and a local tribe. Its decision also came after Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced congressional legislation to ban leasing in the Rubies, where state geologists say there is little oil potential. In fact, about 97 percent of the earlier nominations were aimed at parcels with low to no oil potential, according to a Forest Service analysis.

The majority of the new requests for leases, flagged this week by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, overlap with similar areas. Sportsmen for the Rubies, a new coalition that includes the partnership and Trout Unlimited, said the new leases highlighted the need for congressional action to protect wildlife habitat and recreation in the Ruby Mountains.

In a statement, Cortez Masto said: “It’s absurd that more speculative requests are being made to drill on lands adjacent to the Ruby Mountains, much of which have already been determined by the Forest Service to not be high value for oil and gas leasing.” In addition to urging the passage of the legislation, Cortez Masto said Congress should “address the frivolous and speculative leasing requests for oil and gas drilling on public lands with little to no potential.”

To explore for oil on federal public land, companies must nominate parcels for leasing with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for overseeing federal minerals. There are no fees to nominate land, and companies can file nominations anonymously. After a filing, the BLM conducts an inventory of the land and decides whether to sell leases. Because the parcels fall on Forest Service land, the BLM must receive the agency’s consent and for now, the agency is not acting on the new leases.

In response to questions, a Forest Service spokesperson said its previous decision stands for about 70 percent of the new nominations, which overlap with the earlier nominations, and the land is not available to the BLM for leasing. The remaining parcels would require a new environmental analysis.

To many, the conflict over the Ruby Mountains reflects a broader issue with oil leasing across the state. There are pockets of Nevada where there is real oil potential (see: Railroad Valley), but the state as a whole does not rank as a top oil producer. Yet the BLM receives an outsized number of nominations, relative to other Western states, to open up large swaths of land for oil and gas leasing every year. As a result, Nevada’s leasing system was criticized last year by not only environmentalists, but also a top oil industry lobbyist.

I’ll be reporting more on this issue in the coming days.

Did I miss anything during my three-week hiatus? If you have story ideas or tips, please email them to me at [email protected] Until then, here are some of the stories I’m watching…

A quarter penny: In 1998, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund water projects in Southern Nevada. The vote came after the Legislature gave taxing authority to the Clark County Commission, and the commission deferred to the voters. Despite concerns from opponents, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and supporters were able to mount a case that the quarter penny sales tax was preferable to higher rates and that tourists should bear some water costs.

Flash forward to today. The law authorizing the sales tax for construction projects requires the Clark County Commission to review the program every decade and decide whether to keep the tax. That time has come again.

The water authority’s board plans to discuss the issue at this morning’s meeting as the Commission looks at making the tax indefinite, which the Legislature said it could with a two-thirds vote of the commissioners.

The tax has generated about $1.6 billion in revenue for the agency, supporting key infrastructure in securing its Colorado River supply at Lake Mead, and recycling indoor water through the Las Vegas Wash. Today's discussion comes amid criticism from at least one County Commissioner, Tick Segerblom, that the roughly $100 million generated annually by the tax is a subsidy that could be better spent on other public services. The Great Basin Water Network is also seeking assurances that the tax isn’t being spent on projects related to the agency’s proposed pipeline.

Fighting fire with fragmentation: Across the Great Basin, rangeland wildfires are threatening communities and speeding up the conversion of ecosystems to invasive weeds. That’s where everyone — the ranchers, the firefighters, the land agencies the environmentalists — agree. What to do about it is a more complicated story. In June, the BLM released a much-awaited environmental analysis that could allow the agency to carve up the Western range with up to 11,000 miles of fuel breaks, mowed strips where flammable grasses have been removed or replaced. The idea is that these strips would make firefighting more manageable, sequestering fire to certain areas, slowing its spread and reducing its size.

But the proposal also raises environmental concerns, some explored in an article by the Reno Gazette Journal, about further fragmenting a delicate ecosystem. Fuel breaks at the scale the BLM is proposing would have “compounding effects on all species” dependent on sagebrush ecosystems, argued Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He said a coalition of environmental groups is coming together to oppose the plan, which would also be costly for the land agency. 

At the same time, some conservation groups recognize there could be a need for targeted fuel breaks on a smaller scale. Wildfire is the number one threat to sage grouse. Without addressing wildfires, populations of the imperiled bird are expected to decline across the Great Basin. The big question is: How much should we fragment the landscape in order to save it?

Water for the lake: For the first time on July 5th, the Walker Basin Conservancy successfully delivered water to Walker Lake near Hawthorne. For years, the conservancy has used federal funds to purchase water rights along the Walker River with the goal of restoring habitat to the receding desert lake, the river’s terminus. Once a destination for fish and migratory birds, the lake’s quality worsened and habitat disappeared as more water was diverted for human use over the past century. After years of legal wrangling and settling a recent dispute with a federal water official, the group sent a small portion of its upstream water to the lake on July 5th.

The end of Joshua trees? Confirming earlier studies, a team led by a UC Riverside ecologist found that climate change poses an existential threat to Joshua trees, which have existed for about 2.5 million years. From the news release: “In the best-case scenario, major efforts to reduce heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere would save 19 percent of the tree habitat after the year 2070. In the worst case, with no reduction in carbon emissions, the park would retain a mere 0.02 percent of its Joshua tree habitat.” 

Two new valuable mapping resources:

  • Partnering with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy released a data and a story map earlier this month with information about groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs) in Nevada. It maps everything from phreatophytes to spring density.

An appeal goes forward: A three-person panel of the State Environmental Commission ruled against the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP), which had asked to dismiss an appeal from Great Basin Resource Watch on a mining project near Eureka and instead hear the appeal later in the process. The advocacy group is appealing the division’s final decision to permit the Mt. Hope Mine, a project it has also challenged in federal court.

 In a statement, an NDEP spokesperson said it sought to delay the appeal, focused on the pit lake, to allow for more data collection. Delaying the appeal, NDEP argued, would allow the commission to weigh more data and still hear the appeal before mining below the groundwater table began, what state regulators characterized as a “conservative approach.”

John Hadder, who runs the advocacy group, warned that NDEP’s motion was “precedent setting” in splitting up an appeals process for a final permit decision. The advocacy group said appeals should be weighed before construction started. Ultimately, the commissioners in the pre-hearing on June 20 sided with the group, and the appeal hearing is set for Sept. 4. 

Seismology and Yucca: Gov. Steve Sisolak, with the entire congressional delegation, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry asking for a reassessment of how seismic activity could affect plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. The Reno Gazette Journal reported, in its story about Nevada’s first earthquake fatality, that the Ridgecrest quake registered a 3.5 on the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, a measure of ground movement. The move came after the state geologist and state seismologist sent a separate letter to Sisolak. It said: “Yucca Mountain lies in a very dynamic, seismically active region, as evidenced by the Ridgecrest earthquakes as well as other historical tremblors. Thus, there is a strong need for more modern and thorough research and analysis to fully understand both the seismic and volcanic hazards of the Yucca Mountain area.”

Newsom in Tahoe: California Gov. Gavin Newsom is scheduled to keynote this year’s annual bistate Tahoe Summit, which will be hosted by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Aug. 20.

Clips from the news:

  • A top official at the Interior Department outlined controversial plans to relocate most of the BLM’s headquarter staff out West, including to Nevada. (Washington Post)
  • Where is VW settlement money going? Nevada is on two lists. It is among the 10 ten states spending money on electrification and fossil fuels, more on the former. (Quartz)
  • DOE may have sent unapproved radioactive waste to NV for years (Nevada Current)
  • BLM issues final decision on environmental impact; 2019 permit not final (RGJ)
  • Radiation Exposure Legislation Proposed To Compensate 'Downwinders' (KUER)
  • Outside Magazine goes all-in on Reno. (Outside)

What I’m listening to: I have some driving coming up this week, and I’ll be listening to Season 2 of Bundyville, Oregon Public Radio’s look at the anti-government movement and the West. 

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