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Top Colorado Dems object to Trump plans for oil-gas drilling

DENVER — Top Colorado Democrats on Tuesday accused the Trump administration of rushing to open public lands to oil and gas drilling without giving the public nearly enough time to comment.

In letters to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper also asked the government not to go ahead with plans for oil and gas drilling on habitat for the greater sage grouse, a bird that Western states and federal agencies are trying to protect.

They asked the bureau to withdraw some parcels from a planned December auction of drilling rights on 361 square miles (935 square kilometers) of public land in Colorado, or to put additional restrictions on the parcels.

Steve Hall, a spokesman for the bureau’s Colorado office, said the agency was reviewing Hickenlooper’s letter. The bureau appreciates the state’s input and expects to keep working with Colorado officials, he said. Hall declined to comment on Bennet’s letter.

The bureau manages about 388,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of public land nationwide and oversees the sale of oil and gas leases on most federal land.

Under President Donald Trump, the agency has been rolling back environmental protections seen as hindering oil, gas and coal development on those lands. It has also shortened the process of selling leases for wells, sometimes reducing the amount of time for comments and objections from the public and from state and local officials.

“This new process is insufficient to allow for meaningful input into a sale that currently includes 224 parcels and 230,944 acres across Colorado,” Hickenlooper wrote, referring to the planned December auction.

Bennet said he is concerned the Trump administration’s approach “is leading to a rushed process for oil and gas leasing in Colorado.”

Hickenlooper said some of the parcels that could be up for auction in December are on sage grouse habitat the state is trying to preserve. He noted the Bureau of Land Management had withdrawn all or parts of 18 parcels of land on sage grouse habitat from the sale, but he said dozens more should also be pulled.

Bennet agreed.

Millions of sage grouse once lived across the U.S. West and Canada, but the population has plummeted to between 200,000 and 500,000. Experts blame energy development that broke up the bird’s habitat, along with disease, livestock grazing and other causes.

A joint federal-state program called the Sage Grouse Initiative, launched under the Obama administration, is trying to save the bird without resorting to the strict restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.

Hickenlooper, other Western governors and conservation groups have complained the Trump administration is threatening to undermine that effort by weakening environmental protections.

Hickenlooper and Bennet also raised concerns that drilling on some of the parcels considered for the December sale are in areas that big game use for migration or wintering.

Separately, environmental groups accused the Bureau of Land Management of thwarting public comment on the sale.

The agency said public comments had to be submitted through an online system, but the system did not work at one point during the comment period, attorney Laura King said in a letter to the bureau.

When some commenters tried to email agency officials directly, the emails were rejected and the writers were told to submit their comments through the online system, King said.

Some links to relevant documents on the agency website did not work, she said.

King, of the Western Environmental Law Center, said she was writing on behalf of members of seven environmental groups.

She also said the agency refused to consider comments submitted by the town of Paonia and some western Colorado groups on the grounds they did not raise any new issues. King disputed that, saying the agency had never addressed them.

Asked to respond, Hall, the Bureau of Land Management spokesman, said in an email: “We appreciate the input of those opposed to energy development on public lands, as well as those who support multiple use of the public’s land and energy resources.”

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/dan%20elliott.

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This story has been corrected to show 360 square miles equals 935 square kilometers, not 935,000 square kilometers.

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