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Busting the Bureau of Land Management’s Frackopoly

Even without looking at a photo album, I can picture in my mind’s eye a vacation photo from the gorgeous BLM-managed (Bureau of Land Management) land near Moab, Utah. That image of my family and friends on a bicycle trip in the red rock lands, perfectly faded by time, carefully preserved for posterity. Nowhere in that photo does a fracking rig, or any telltale signs of industrial activity appear. But skip ahead fifteen or twenty years into the future, and this photo could be telling an entirely different story.

Arches National Park. Photo credit: Neal Herbert/National Park Service

That’s because parcels of BLM-managed land like the ones near Moab Valley, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and so many others in the U.S., may be at risk from nearby fracking. President Obama’s BLM controls access to more than 700 million acres of federally owned mineral rights, some of which sit adjacent to public parks.

Some 38 million acres of that land is currently leased, and over the past three years, the oil and gas industry has drilled over three thousand new wells, 90 percent of which have been (or will be) fracked. In fact, existing and proposed drilling and fracking operations overseen by the BLM threaten public lands, nearby watersheds, air quality and the health and safety of surrounding communities in 27 states.

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The mission of the BLM, according to its own website, is “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of America’s lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” But how can future generations be expected to enjoy lands that sit adjacent to hardcore industrial activity?

Rough Mules Ear. Photo credit: Neal Herbert/National Park Service

Earlier this summer, the Associated Press revealed that four in 10 new oil and gas wells on BLM-managed property are not being inspected. According to AP analysis of BLM records, between 2009 and 2012, 1,400 wells deemed “high priority” were not examined for potential safety violations. The BLM simply isn’t upholding its responsibility to protect our lands, yet the Obama administration wants to allow more of these potential time bombs to tick away just miles from many of our nation’s treasures. Even one former BLM employee deemed these wells “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Last year, the agency released new rules for drilling and fracking on federal lands. If enacted, these rules would fail to protect those sacred areas from fracking. Food & Water Watch, joined by a coalition of nearly 300 environmental and consumer organizations, submitted more than half a million public comments urging the Obama administration to ban fracking on federal lands. Nearly a year later, little has happened. But this is a pivotal moment.

President Obama is nearing the end of his exhausting and contentious presidency, with an eye, no doubt, to his legacy. Will he ultimately embody the progressive values he campaigned on, or will he sell off our lands and our collective futures to Big Oil and Gas? When it comes to preserving our natural parks, will he be remembered more like Teddy Roosevelt, or will he be lumped in with the Koch Brothers?

Everglades Cypress Sunset. Photo credit: G Gardner/National Park Service

The BLM has asked the government for $150 million to support well inspections, but Congress can do better. Our legislative branch has the power to protect our public lands from fracking, not by throwing money at problematic wells, but by banning oil and gas development on public lands altogether. That’s why Congress needs to introduce legislation to that effect.

By now, we’ve seen enough accidents at fracking and drilling sites to know that the practice cannot be safely regulated. We’ve read countless news articles about fracking contaminating water supplies, contributing to global warming and possibly causing earthquakes in regions of the U.S. that typically do not see much seismic activity. So why mar the landscapes near our treasured national lands with fracking rigs, waste pits, well sites and new roads? Is nothing sacred?

I want my grandchildren to be able to enjoy the Moab area as I have more than a dozen times over the past 25 years. But if oil and gas development continues to threaten our nation’s treasured lands, all we, and President Obama, will have left is one toxic legacy.

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