The federal Bureau of Land Management faced backlash for its continued leasing of public land to the oil and gas industry, amid a global spread of COVID-19 leading to declining demand for fuel and subsequently faltering oil prices.
Coupled with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and subsequent production increases from the second- and third-highest oil producing countries in the world, respectively, the value of American crude oil plummeted.
As of Monday, the price of domestic crude had continued its decline to $20 per barrel after remaining below $30 for most of the March and showing the lowest prices in five years, per data from Nasdaq.
New Mexico also dropped another three rigs in the last week, from 112 on March 20 to 109 on March 27, five below March’s average of 114 rigs, per the latest report from Baker Hughes.
Activists groups called on the federal government to cease land leases to the industry until the market stabilizes, arguing the economic gains were no longer worth the risks to the environment they said were posed by extraction operations.
In a Monday letter to the BLM’s New Mexico Office, a coalition of environment, indigenous and community groups demanded all public comment periods for oil and gas lease sales and major policy decisions be paused until COVID-19 was contained.
Rebecca Sobel, senior campaigner with WildEarth Guardians pointed to proposed rollbacks of environmental regulations, such as adjustments to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and continued lease sales as unable to garner public participation during the pandemic.
“It is unconscionable for BLM to be propping up polluters during a public health pandemic,” Sobel said. “Rolling back pollution controls will only exacerbate health issues; urgently, the agency must put public health first and halt the rubber stamping of more fracking approvals.”
James Jimenez, executive director at New Mexico Voice for Children said a recent BLM lease sale scheduled for May would result in “bargain basement” prices for the public land as the lease rates are tied to current oil prices.
“New leases that will allow companies to drill for oil and gas on federal lands are scheduled to go on sale in May. The lease rates are based on current oil and gas prices, so clearly any leases sold soon will go at bargain-basement prices,” he said.
“As New Mexico receives a share of the lease revenue, which helps put books in our classrooms and medicines in our clinics and hospitals, we will not be getting full value for our shared state resources.”
Jimenez called on the administration of President Donald Trump to not sell off public land at the current low market value, especially while the state and nation grapple with the economic fallout caused by coronavirus.
“It is simply irresponsible for this Administration to allow leases to be sold at this time in this volatile market when prices are being driven by fights between oil-producing nations rather than normal supply and demand factors,” he said.
“The Administration must do the right thing and postpone these lease sales until prices stabilize. It’s the right thing to do to protect New Mexico’s children and families.”
A group of more than 90 environmental organizations called on Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to cease land leasing during the outbreak.
Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity said leasing land during the struggling market environment was irresponsible.
McKinnon also argued the BLM’s policy of only accepting protests on the May lease sale via mail or hand delivery was putting the public at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and discouraging public opposition.
“Putting the public at risk of infection to facilitate fossil-fuel extraction is an obscene new low in the Trump administration’s quest to serve this polluting industry and silence the public,” McKinnon said.
“All the administration’s efforts must be focused on this pandemic. New federal oil and gas leasing and permitting should stop immediately.”
In the letter, the groups requested the Trump administration and the DOI suspend any major policy changes, and public comment periods until the pandemic is passed.
They argued most adults are more focused on their own health and their families during the outbreak and would not be able to adequately comment on proposed lease sales and other actions.
“Commenting on Interior Department proposals for major policy changes, changes to regulations, and oil and gas leases requires concerted focused attention and resources that many people who normally engage in these processes simply do not have right now,” read the letter.
“Additionally, several fieldtrips and in-person meetings are scheduled that are in conflict with the president’s request to limit public gatherings.”
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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