As record oil prices pinch the wallets of average Americans, the natural gas and oil industry is increasingly asserting that leasing more wild, public lands to natural gas and oil drilling could solve this crisis. Unfortunately, an unparalleled drilling boom on Western lands over the past seven years has not lowered the prices of energy at all -- in fact, they've soared to new levels.
Today, more than 44 million acres of onshore public lands are leased, but only about a quarter of those lands are under development. That leaves a more than 30-million acre glut of unused land. In a departure from its mission of balanced use for the lands under its stewardship, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has increasingly sought to make natural gas and oil development the dominant use of our public lands wherever the resources might be found.
Since 2001, the rate at which the BLM has granted permits has accelerated enormously. Before the arrival of the current administration, about 35.5 million acres of federal land were under lease to private industry. In a span of only seven years, however, that number increased to more than 44 million. In 2007 alone, while firms began operations on more than 5,000 sites, the government issued another 7,124 drilling permits, an all-time high. Although the drilling boom has increased the fortunes of some Western communities, the environmental costs have been significant, including diminished water and air quality and the destruction of wildlife habitat.
The administration recently tried to justify its rush on public lands by releasing a misleading report that exaggerates the amount of federal land off-limits to drilling. A close analysis of the BLM's report, known as "EPCA III," reveals that the BLM manipulated data to reach a predetermined conclusion that supports the natural gas and oil industry's desire to open more public lands to drilling. In a transparent attempt to drive up the percentage of lands inaccessible to drilling, the BLM's new report for the first time included wilderness areas, national parks, and national monuments in its "off-limits" lands. It also listed environmental concerns and relations with Native Americans as "impediments" to leasing transactions. Environmental safeguards to ensure Americans have clean water and air and the tribal need for subsistence hunting should not be considered "impediments."
Also greasing the skids for more development are five new "Categorical Exclusions" -- created by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act -- through which the BLM can exempt projects from environmental reviews if needed. This administration clearly intends to use these exemptions to circumvent the "impediments" posed by wildlife habitat and clean water protection. Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1,600 projects received this exemption.
If, as appears likely, the Bush Administration continues or expands these practices in its last several months, Americans could see permanent damage to some of their most wild and historic places, such as Utah's Nine-Mile Canyon. By the BLM's own admission, the canyon's towering walls and shaded grottos contain "the greatest concentration of rock art sites in the U.S.A." Nonetheless, the BLM teamed with a Colorado gas firm to open up the area to more than 800 wells, prompting public outcry from tens of thousands of citizens.
The BLM is also using its long-range plans to open a disproportionate amount of its lands to natural gas and oil drilling. In Utah, for example, of the 6.4 million acres under consideration for new Resource Management Plans (RMPs), 5.4 million would be opened for development by natural gas and oil companies. Those millions of acres include prime wildlife habitats, red-rock canyons, and pristine mountain landscapes.
As the government continues to go through contortions to open more of our cherished places to drilling, the threat to our public lands grows more dire. This administration and its allies in Congress have made clear their intention to continue to offer leases even if the impact at the pump is negligible. With the help of complicit policymakers, they will increasingly dodge environmental safeguards and leave our lands open to natural gas and oil drilling for as long as big oil can keep pumping them.
Playing upon the fear of Americans who are watching their cars consume higher percentages of their income and their energy bills rise, this administration intends to lease more of our unparalleled wild places. Let's not let fear rob our children and grandchildren of their cherished natural inheritance.