The BLM should treat oil companies like it treats Terry Tempest Williams

The BLM recently announced that it would not issue two federal oil and gas leases purchased by the well-known conservationist Terry Tempest Williams. To justify its decision, BLM cited a requirement that federal leases be “diligently developed,” and, through her public statements, Williams had made it clear that she had no intention to actually drill and develop her leases.

What’s the point of the so-called “diligent development” requirement? For one, even in the absence of actual development, leases prevent BLM from managing public lands for other uses, like outdoor recreation, conservation and alternative forms of energy development. So, the diligent development requirement is meant to ensure that leased lands are either drilled or set aside for other uses.

And while we’re thrilled that BLM is enforcing this requirement, we also think the agency should first look to the tens of thousands of non-producing federal leases in the hands of the oil and gas industry before going after the two leases bought by Williams. Not only are these industry-held leases crowding out other uses of our public lands, in many cases, they’re cheating taxpayers at the same time.

For decades, the federal onshore oil and gas program has been overrun by industry speculation. Most federal leases are purchased by companies and land-men that, like Williams, have no intention to diligently drill and develop the lease, but rather, to “wait and see” whether development is worthwhile, or flip and sell the lease to another company at a profit. A few key supporting facts:

Further still, among the 30 million acres of non-producing federal leases, roughly 3 million are indefinitely “suspended,” meaning they have no fixed expiration date and generate no tax revenue. So, not only are non-producing leases crowding out other uses of public lands, they’re cheating taxpayers too—companies are speculating on our public lands for free.

BLM is right to enforce the diligent development requirement. But it should start with the biggest culprit – the oil and gas industry – that is holding 30 million acres of non-producing federal leases, including 3 million acres of suspended leases that aren’t generating any revenue. Then it can go after Terry Tempest Williams.

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