Public Lands Development Rigged in Favor of Oil and Gas
By Nada Culver
A staggering 90 percent of our public lands and minerals managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are open to oil and gas leasing due to fundamental flaws in the BLM's policies, according to a new report from The Wilderness Society.
The No Exit report shows that regardless of conservation value or potential energy resources, the Bureau of Land Management automatically places our public lands on the highway to oil and gas leasing. Instead of seeking to preserve some of the nearly 250 million acres of public lands and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral resources owned by the American people, the agency relies on outdated and unbalanced policies and defaults to managing public lands for energy development.
Oil and gas development in Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado. Mason Cummings / The Wilderness Society
This directly conflicts with the BLM's own guiding principle that some lands, especially those with low potential energy resources, be managed for conservation, wildlife habitat and recreation.
Public Lands Development Rigged in Favor of the Oil and Gas
Currently, nearly 32 million acres of BLM lands are leased for oil and gas development, including areas that do not contain oil and gas. Lands under lease remain unavailable for any other use, even when they are not actively under development. And the majority of these leased lands—60 percent—remain undeveloped due to oil and gas companies hoping for future profits if energy prices rise or the land could be sold.
In the end, it is the American people who lose because the development of our public lands is rigged in favor of the oil and gas industry. Acres of wild-land that may be too sensitive for drilling are still never made available for public use. And millions of dollars in taxpayer revenue is lost on leased lands sitting idle, as the industry avoids paying any royalties and squats on large tracks of land through a tool known as suspensions. As of April, the oil and gas industry is hoarding 19.3 million acres without paying royalties—that's an area the size of South Carolina!
Our public lands deserve a chance at something other than energy development. To avoid defaulting our public lands to oil and gas leasing, the BLM needs to take immediate action to follow its own principles and modernize its outdated practices.
The BLM is Misguided by Its Own Guidance
It seems absurd, but the BLM's interpretation of its handbook, which lays out steps to identify whether land has potential for oil and gas development or is too sensitive for drilling, is out of step with its own guiding principles for land management.
The handbook directs the agency staff to manage BLM lands based on the potential of recoverable oil and gas deposits beneath the surface, helping to focus staff on areas with the most potential. However, the BLM does not follow through on closing lands to leasing, so the majority of lands can still be leased even if the potential for oil and gas is very low or nonexistent. This leaves us with 90 percent of BLM lands and minerals being open to oil and gas development.
The BLM's unbalanced approach to leasing and development decisions puts conservation on the back burner, leading to several problems:
1. Leased Land Can Never be Managed for Wildlife, Recreation or Land Conservation
The BLM considers any resource potential and undeveloped leases as prohibitive to other management actions that would benefit recreation, wilderness and wildlife.
This means that once BLM leases land to the fossil fuel industry, it is nearly impossible to manage it for other uses. Meaningful conservation that could occur on sensitive lands never even has a chance. Even land with very little or no potential energy development is within the grasp of oil and gas companies and out of reach of the American public.
2. Defaulting to Energy Development is Out of Step with Meeting National Climate Goals
If all leases on public lands were developed by the industry, greenhouse gas emissions from public lands would greatly set back our nation's climate goals.
We now know that energy extracted from public lands accounts for more than 1/5 of the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint. Continuing to lease more and more acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry only sets us on a path towards increasing polluting emissions.
3. Public Lands Are Not Managed for the Benefit of the American People
Many Americans strongly support managing our wild-lands for something other than oil and gas development.
But most Americans never get a voice in the lands' management, enjoy scenic landscapes or profit from revenue that could be generated if they were managed for something other than oil and gas. Instead, oil and gas companies hoard public lands for decades without paying royalties. Undeveloped leases generate less than two percent of total oil and gas revenue and nearly 80 million in revenue has been lost by companies not paying rent on those leases.
Most states in the West have close to 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands open to oil and gas leasing.
Speculative Leasing: Putting the Majority of Our Public Lands at Risk and Creating a Double Standard
The report examines how a staggering amount of land with low or no potential for development is still open to leasing, leading to speculative leasing. This means that the BLM keeps public land open and oil and gas companies lease it in hopes that energy prices will rise, cheaper methods of extraction will be invented or leases can be sold off to another company.
By allowing speculative leasing, the BLM encourages a ridiculous double-standard. While the agency prioritizes oil and gas leasing, it makes it very hard for any tract of land to meet the standard to be managed for conservation or recreation. And even if a piece of land is shown to contain abundant wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities, the BLM often declines to set it aside.
What is even worse is that the BLM sees the presence of leases, even highly speculative leases, as a basis for rejecting new conservation designations. This cycle completely undermines conservation efforts on our public lands.
Energy Must No Longer Trump Everything Else on Public Lands
It is too easy for land to be leased for oil and gas development and far too difficult to protect land for conservation. With 90 percent of our public lands and minerals open to leasing, we have several policy recommendations that BLM can enact immediately that will provide an exit for our public lands from the road to development:
- Immediate guidance needs to be issued, clarifying how leasing and planning decisions can better reflect balanced management of our public lands.
- Guidelines in the BLM handbook should be followed and updated to provide a better path forward on public lands management.
- Lands must be closed to oil and gas development when they have conservation value and little or no potential for oil and gas.
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The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
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Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
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Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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