Federal leasing process (still) wastes BLM resources, taxpayer dollars

Judging by recent federal lease sale activity in Nevada, you might think Elko County is home to the next Bakken. For its upcoming, March 2017 lease sale, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) received nearly a million acres of lease “nominations” in the county, lands proposed by industry for new leasing.

But in taking a closer look at the nominations, BLM found that most of the nominated lands fell “within [already] leased areas, within a Wilderness Study Area (WSA), or lands with no federal mineral estate.” That is, most of the proposed lands were legally disqualified from leasing.

These types of speculative and wasteful nominations are nothing new. Earlier this year, at the March 2016 sale in Nevada, nominations from the oil and gas industry topped a quarter-million acres, a large share of which also fell within existing leases, wilderness areas, and non-federal lands ineligible for the sale. BLM ultimately offered just over 50,000 acres at the sale, none of which received bids. Thus, in the end, industry itself even acknowledged that the lands it nominated for sale weren’t worth developing.

And last year, WVP published a report (covered by National Geographic), describing a number of shocking nominations from recent BLM sales across the West. Among the more notable cases, industry asked for permission to lease and drill private farms and ranches in New Mexico, a cemetery in Colorado, and along the boundary of Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.

Rather than pointing to the location of the next oil boom, the roughly million acres nominated for BLM’s March 2017 sale actually help illustrate a major flaw in the federal leasing program: that by putting industry in the driver’s seat, BLM is wasting increasingly scarce resources and taxpayer dollars.

Under the existing process, whenever companies propose lands for new leasing, BLM must screen those lands to determine whether they are even available for leasing. This takes time and money. But if you’re an oil and gas company, why not nominate as much land as possible for every sale? You’ve got nothing to lose—it’s just more work for BLM.

Not only does the process encourage waste of agency time and resources—it also puts public lands at risk. As we’ve seen time and again in the past, oil and gas companies simply can’t be trusted to represent the public’s interest in having public lands managed for a wide range of activities, not just oil and gas drilling. It’s really not their job, and, frankly, it shouldn’t be.

As we transition to a new Administration in Washington, BLM must improve the efficiency and efficacy of the federal onshore leasing program. It’s good business and makes sense for the American taxpayer. Sorting through thousands of lease nominations touching lands that either should not, or legally cannot, qualify for a federal sale is a proven waste of agency resources and taxpayer dollars.

Instead of filtering a flood of industry nominations, BLM should take the reins back from the oil and gas industry and itself affirmatively select lands appropriate for new leasing. The agency already has the legal authority to do so, and it already routinely inventories federal lands to identify areas ripe for new exploration and development.

Taking leasing into its own hands would allow BLM to manage leasing on federal lands in a more efficient, organized manner, speeding up the leasing process for industry, and helping to protect against conflicts on lands where leasing should never be considered in the first place. It’s a bipartisan, commonsense reform that would benefit the BLM, industry and the American taxpayer.

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