Cortez Masto urges BLM to rethink Nevada drilling leases

If you don't have an oil well, get one
Still a rare site in Nevada - an oil well along U.S. Route 6 in Railroad Valley in the Tonopah Basin. (Wikimedia Commons)
If you don't have an oil well, get one
Still a rare site in Nevada – an oil well along U.S. Route 6 in Railroad Valley in the Tonopah Basin. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is urging the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider its plans to auction off oil and gas drilling leases for more than 500,000 acres of land in Nevada. 

The Trump administration is planning to offer 263 parcels of land in Lincoln, Nye and White Pine Counties during an auction slated for next Tuesday.

But Cortez Masto protested the sales in a letter sent to BLM on Tuesday, citing local opposition, risks to water supplies and potential threats to public lands. 

The City of Mesquite last month submitted a formal protest against the lease sale, warning that any contamination of the water due to oil and gas exploration would devastate the 25,000 residents and could cripple tourism in the region. 

“Despite new technologies, accidents are not uncommon during extraction efforts,” Cortez Masto wrote to the department. “Any level of risk to a community’s water supply is an unacceptable and unnecessary level of risk.” 

She noted that the City of Henderson, the Virgin Valley Water District, Clark County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, the Moapa Band of Paiutes and others had also expressed opposition to the leasing of certain parcels offered in the sale. 

It is “imperative that the BLM facilitate public participation and carefully weigh state and local input when considering this and future oil and gas lease sales in the state,” Cortez Masto wrote. 

Many of the parcels slated for BLM leasing in this sale and future sales are on lands near Great Basin National Park, the Ruby Lake Wildlife Refuge and the Ruby Mountains, the Nevada senator added. Expansive drilling in those areas could “harm fragile wildlife and impede on sensitive landscapes,” she said, urging BLM to reconsider including those lands in leasing auctions.

BLM holds oil and gas lease sales four times per year in Nevada. The department has the discretion to offer or defer any parcel during any sale, and half of the royalties go to the state.

‘A waste of time’ 

The pending lease sale comes as the Trump administration has pushed to open up more oil and gas drilling on public lands, which has encountered resistance from environmentalists and other critics. 

Cortez Masto pressed Katharine MacGregor, Trump’s nominee to serve as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, on the issue of oil and gas leases during a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. 

MacGregor assured Cortez Masto that the department would take local concerns into account. “In the leasing process, we do do quite a bit of environmental analysis, but we also do subsequent analysis prior to the issuance of any permit and we will communicate with you through the entirety of that process,” MacGregor said. 

The Nevada senator also asked the Interior nominee why the administration continues to auction off areas for drilling that have been identified as having little or no oil and gas development potential. “I think it’s a waste of time,” Cortez Masto told her. 

“I think that’s a fair question and a fair point,” MacGregor replied. She noted requirements that BLM hold quarterly lease sales and said that the process is “very market driven,” and that leases without prospects generally don’t receive bids. 

Nevada is not among the top U.S. states in terms of crude oil or natural gas production. The state ranks No. 26 in terms of crude oil producers and No. 33 for natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Newsroom, a network of state-based non-profit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.