DENVER (CN) - The Bureau of Land Management must identify those that seek to develop oil and gas reserves on public land in Colorado, a federal judge ruled.
Claiming that private interests have targeted up to 30,000 acres of public land in the North Fork Valley since the bureau began fielding "Expressions of Interest" last year, Citizens for a Healthy Community requested the names and addresses of two potential lessees under the Freedom of Information Act.
The nonprofit, dedicated to fighting "irresponsible" oil and gas development in Delta County, had demanded the release of: "The Expressions of Interest submitted for the parcels located in the Uncompahgre Field Office included in the August 2012 Oil and Gas Lease Sale, including information identifying the persons or entities who submitted Expressions of Interest; and all documents related to the Expressions of Interest listed above," according to the court ruling.
It sued the bureau and the Department of the Interior after the Uncompahgre Field Office refused its request under Exemption 4, which covers "commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential."
Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch concluded Wednesday that this exemption does not apply. A person need only provide their name, mailing address and telephone number to file an expression of interest with the bureau, he noted.
"The justification for applying Exemption 4 is not based on this information alone," Matsch wrote. "The contention is that exploration for oil and gas on public lands is very competitive; that those engaged in that business do preliminary investigative work to consider the possibilities of the acreage they are interested in; that such work is protected information and that when the submitter's interest is known to its competitors, the obtain an unfair advantage and will bid against the submitter.
"That contention runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process. Competition in bidding advances the purpose of getting a fair price for a lease of publicly owned minerals. Moreover, the identity of the submitter may be relevant to the plaintiff and others who may raise concerns about the stewardship records of that particular owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale.
"The information required to be provided by an EOI submitter is not protected by Exemption 4 and the plaintiff's request must be granted."
The bureau has 30 days to release the requested information.
Citizens for a Healthy Community says it has thus far successfully blocked development of all targeted parcels in the North Fork Valley.
Kyle Tisdel, who represented the group alongside Megan O'Reilly with the Western Environmental Law Center, hailed the ruling as a victory for government transparency.
"Every community has the right to know what corporations are seeking to drill on public lands near their homes and where they recreate," Tisdel said in a statement. "The court's decision is a clear rebuke of BLM's policy to protect industry at the expense of the public and its ability to fully engage the agency's decision-making process."