History is full of examples of land sales to raise quick cash. In retrospect, they look like pretty terrible deals. Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. Czar Nicholas sold Alaska for $7 million. Speaking of the West, Daniel Webster asked, "What do we want with this worthless area. . . . To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts and endless mountain ranges?"
It is therefore worth asking whether the administration's efforts to raise money through the sale and leasing of federal lands and mineral reserves represents wise policy. Are mineral leases producing a fair return to the taxpayer who owns them? Are vast offerings swamping the market? Are land sales being made in the trough of a depressed market? Above all, is the Interior Department, in its role as steward of the public's land, wildlife and resource holdings, pursuing an appropriately conservative policy--developing what is needed now while preserving the rest for unpredictable future needs?
Interior's plans for 1983 and beyond include a vast offshore oil and gas leasing program covering the entire 1 billion acres of the outer continental shelf. The proposed program--scheduled for delivery to Congress this week--envisions offerings of up to 50 million acres per sale; the previous limit was 3 million acres. The leases are being offered for lower royalty rates than before--at the lowest rate allowed by law. Interior thinks the lower rates will encourage more exploration, but oil company executives say they will have no such effect. The industry has also criticized the plan for offering more leases than it can explore or develop.
Secretary Watt hailed as a great achievement the recent sale of more than a billion tons of coal in the rich Powder River basin on the Montana-Wyoming border. The largest ever, the sale raised $55 million. But only three of the 13 tracts attracted more than a single bid, and the coal sold for a fraction of the price of comparable reserves elsewhere. Previous federal leases in this region have already made available more coal than is needed to meet expected demand through 1990. The low interest may also reflect local fears that there has been inadequate planning to meet new social and environmental dislocations.
Despite the lack of industry interest, the administration also wants to accelerate leasing of oil shale lands and substantially lower the rates. And it hopes to raise $18 billion over five years through the sale of 35 million acres of federal real estate, nearly 5 percent of what it now owns. Some officials concede privately that the target is wildly inflated.
It is an odd criticism to make of a conservative Republican administration, but it doesn't seem that this one is carefully managing its--our--assets.