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Trump Administration Sells Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah National Monuments

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Lands threatened by BLM's March 2018 sale include Hatch Point. Neal Clark / SUWA

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.


The Trump administration has aggressively pushed for fossil fuels. Even though Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has previously insisted "this is not about energy," Interior Department documents made public by the New York Times earlier this month showed that gaining access to the oil, gas and uranium deposits in Bears Ears and coal reserves in Grand Staircase-Escalante were key reasons behind the drastic cuts to the two Utah monuments.

Conservation groups say the leases are contrary to federal laws and regulations, as oil and gas development will lead to the destruction of culturally and environmentally rich areas. Researchers recently discovered what may be one of the world's richest caches of Triassic period fossils at an extensive site within Bears Ears' original boundaries.

"We won't sit idly by while President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke auction off America's cultural and public lands heritage to the oil and gas industry," said Stephen Bloch, legal director with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). "This lease sale flies in the face of historic preservation and environmental laws that Congress put in place to make sure that BLM thinks before it acts; not 'lease first, and think later.'"

"BLM's short-sighted decision threatens Utah's red rock wilderness as well as significant cultural and archaeological resources," added Landon Newell, staff attorney with SUWA. "BLM's 'lease everything, lease everywhere' approach to oil and gas development needlessly threatens iconic red rock landscapes and irreplaceable cultural history in the ill-conceived push for 'energy dominance.'"

In addition to Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments, BLM also plans to offer leases in other culturally and ecologically significant public lands throughout southeastern Utah, as conservation groups outlined:

  • Several tracts in a culturally rich part of southeastern Utah known as Alkali Ridge. BLM briefly considered leasing in this area in 2015, but acknowledged that it lacked sufficient information about the cultural resources in the area and backed away from the proposal. The agency is putting these cultural sites at risk without collecting and reviewing that information;
  • Several tracts along segments of the Green River and San Juan River popular with families, recreational business and tourists for river running, as well as home to several endangered fish species; and
  • Several tracts in proposed wilderness areas including in Goldbar Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon near Moab, Utah, and in Cross Canyon, immediately adjacent to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Nada Culver, senior director of The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center pointed out, "Secretary Zinke and the BLM have acknowledged that some places should not be put at risk from oil and gas drilling, as we saw in his recent reprieves for lands around Chaco Canyon and the town of Livingston, Montana.

"The extraordinary cultural resources and wilderness values of these Utah lands deserve the same protection," Culver noted.

Reuters reported that local officials are eager to extract resources from the areas in order to provide economic benefits in some of Utah's poorest areas.

"Oil and gas operations are an important contributor to a diversified county economy and the county supports leasing as a necessary step toward realizing economic benefits," county planner Nick Sanberg said in comments to the BLM.

However, as Reuters detailed, "recent lease sales have yielded relatively low bids, a reflection of soft demand for federal property as the oil and gas industry taps vast reserves on private lands."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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