Next month, hundreds of corporate representatives will sit down at their computers, log in to something called EnergyNet, and bid, eBay style, for more than 300,000 acres of federal land spread across five Western states. They will pay as little as $2 per acre for control of land in Utah canyon country, Wyoming sage grouse territory and Native American ancestral homelands in New Mexico.
Even as public-land advocates rail at the idea of broad transfers of federal land to states and private interests, this less-noticed conveyance continues unabated. It is a slightly less egregious version of the land transfers that state supremacists, Sagebrush Rebels and privatization advocates have pushed for since the 1970s.
This is oil and gas leasing, conducted under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. With President Donald Trump proclaiming in his Jan. 30 State of the Union speech that Republicans have “ended the war on American energy,” you can expect such leasing to ramp up in years to come. While title to the land is not transferred, the power of public oversight – which puts the “public” in public lands – is. Theoretically, leased land remains under federal control, meaning that companies are subject to federal regulations and oversight, public access to the land is retained, and the American public still has a say over what happens there. This, however, is only theoretically.
In practice, the public has very little voice in the leasing process or the permitting of development that follows. After an energy company or the Bureau of Land Management nominates parcels for leasing, the public is given a chance to comment or file a formal protest. Quite often these protests fall on deaf ears. BLM data show that over the last 20 years, the number of parcels protested has no bearing on how many were removed from bidding.
The Obama administration tried to give the public a bit more say on the front end of the process with its master leasing plans, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke killed that rule, and public impotence appears to be worsening. A High Country News analysis found that hundreds of protests were lodged against nearly all the 1.4 million acres offered by the BLM for lease in six western states in 2017. A vast majority of those protests were dismissed or denied.
From 1988 to 2016, an average of 3.43 million acres – or 5,300 square miles – of federal land was leased out to energy companies each year. The leases vest the companies with property rights to extract oil, gas or other resources from the land. Those rights are retained for the term of the lease – 10 years or more without development and indefinitely after production begins. If the land becomes a national monument or gains other protected status during the lease, the property rights remain in place. By the end of the 2016 fiscal year, private interests controlled more than 27 million acres of federal land through leasing.
Before the leaseholder can scrape away a half-acre of vegetation and topsoil for a well pad and start drilling miles into the earth, it must get a drilling permit. While public input is typically not part of the permitting process, citizens have an indirect voice by way of the regulatory framework that officials must work within. This process represents the last vestige of public ownership over the leased land.
But now Zinke is doing his best to blow that process to bits. The Interior secretary has weakened regulation of fracking, methane waste and other emissions and reopened a loophole that was closed under Obama to reduce royalty fraud on public lands. Now, he’s looking to ax older rules, too, many of which protect wild spaces and cultural resources.
Under Zinke, industry will run over the public’s land like it owns the place, and land-management agencies (public employees on public lands) will have little power to stop it. Zinke has repeatedly expressed his opposition to wholesale federal land transfers, but his enthusiasm for leasing adds up to the same thing. The Interior secretary is running a de facto privatization scheme.
Zinke’s zeal is now being tested in northern New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, where, as part of an auction this month, the BLM is scheduled to lease 4,434 acres of land that is culturally significant to the Navajo and Pueblo people. The BLM has received 120 formal protests against the sale, including from the All Pueblo Council of Governors – a consortium of 20 tribal nations – four Navajo chapters, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, eight environmental groups, the Pueblo of Acoma and numerous individuals.
We have yet to see how the BLM will respond to these official protests, but when it does, we’ll know who really calls the shots and whether we. the public, still own our nation’s public lands.
(Editor’s note: Zinke told the Journal Thursday the lease sale in the San Juan Basin has been canceled.)
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org), where he is a contributing editor.
Zinke’s zeal tested in northern NM’s San Juan Basin