There are millions of public acres under oil and gas leases that are sitting idle across the West. Image: Creative Commons

Dear POTUS:
We’ve Got a Two-For-One Deal For You

By Kate Zimmerman

The current occupant of the White House has issued an Executive Order declaring that all federal agencies must eliminate two rules for every new rule they propose. This EO is being challenged as unconstitutional and illegal and unsupported by any common sense. Setting aside the questionable nature of the EO, if the current administration is dedicated to the concept of “two for one,” I have a suggestion for a better place to put this management style to work.

Drilling rig in North Park, Colorado. Image: Judith Kohler

SITTING ON LEASES

The Bureau of Land Management currently has millions of acres under lease for oil and gas development and thousands of permits to drill for oil and gas that aren’t being used. Many of these leases and permits are more than a decade old. These idle leases and drill permits tie up management of vital habitat, often making it impossible to address new or better information about the needs of fish and wildlife. This includes newly-designated priority sage-grouse habitats as well as migration corridors for elk and crucial mule deer winter ranges.

The presence of millions of acres of non-producing leases on federal lands is not new — data over the past decade points to a regular surplus of federal leases and suggests that, at least on federal lands, more leasing does not equate to more actual energy production. The Congressional Budget Office found that wells were drilled on only 1 in 10 of all federal leases issued between 1996 and 2003. At the end of FY 2016, about 27 million acres of public land were under lease, yet only 12.8 million acres — less than half — actually produced any oil or gas.

Along with unused leases, industry also has a record number of unused drilling permits for public lands — about 7,500. This number will likely rise in the coming years, as industry has deferred or cancelled many permitted drilling projects due to declines in oil and gas prices. In fact, in FY 2015, BLM issued almost 2,000 more drilling permits than industry drilled (or “spud”) new wells — one of the largest disparities in recorded history.

CRYING CROCODILE TEARS?

It’s a great deal for industry, but a bad one for the American public — and for the wildlife whose habitat, where they live, eat and raise their young, gets carved up.

Fossil fuel production’s ups and downs are closely tied to prices. A glut of production around the world, as well as here in the United States, has resulted in a drastic drop in prices. For example, in 2015, as oil prices fell 50 percent from 2014 — from $93.17 per barrel to $48.66 — the number of drilling rigs also fell 50 percent, from 1,862 to 978.

Still, the industry continues to cry crocodile tears about how the federal government is stifling oil and gas development and should make more public land available. In response, the White House has declared that it intends to increase oil and gas production on our public lands and ordered the Secretary of the Interior to review any impediments to the issuance of even more leases and more permits. Stories by E&E News say an internal BLM working document plays into the industry’s narrative by directing that approval of leases and drilling permits be streamlined to address “backlogs.” This despite the ugly truth that the vast majority of leases and permits already handed out to industry aren’t being developed or drilled.

It’s understandable why industry wants to build its stockpile of unused leases and permits on our public lands while it can get them on the cheap and bolster their portfolio for investors. Current law allows leases to be “suspended” — effectively put on hold — ensuring the leases do not expire even while companies are not paying rent and are not required to make progress on producing any oil or gas that would require royalty payments. It’s a great deal for industry, but a bad one for the American public — and for the wildlife whose habitat, where they live, eat and raise their young, gets carved up. While the leases are suspended, the oil and gas companies retain control of the lands, which prevents them from being managed properly for other uses for the benefit of the public — be it fish and wildlife, recreation or even development by other companies.

Some migration routes and habitat of pronghorn and mule deer are fragmented by oil and gas wells and infrastructure. Image: USFWS, Prairie Mountain Region, Flickr

Let’s not hold a fire sale of our public lands.

How about returning some of the lands already sold instead and restoring them to multiple use, including fish and wildlife conservation? Let’s invoke a two-for-one repayment plan for leases and permits on our public lands.

Kate Zimmerman is the public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation.

The National Wildlife Federation is dedicated to protecting our public lands for wildlife and for future generations. Join us in opposing attacks on our public lands: follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn more.

The National Wildlife Federation public lands program advocates for our public lands and waters, wildlife and the right of every American to enjoy them.