On their way out the door, officials in President George W. Bush’s Interior Department made a last-minute grant of 77 oil and gas leases near Arches National Park and other sensitive landscapes in Utah. At a time when the “drill, baby, drill” mantra was overwhelming rational consideration of competing needs and uses of our public lands, including recreational, wildlife and conservation interests, it was a parting gift to sate the seemingly never-ending appetite of some oil and gas operators and their political supporters to profit from (over)use of public lands.
Upon taking office, President Barack Obama’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, canceled those ill-considered leases, wisely asserting his mandate to oversee a balanced use of public lands that enables energy development to proceed in the right way, and in the right places, while also heeding the needs and interests of wildlife, hunters and anglers, birdwatchers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds — not to mention the broader interest and responsibility to preserve our magnificent landscapes for the benefit of future generations.
President Trump’s administration is repeating history by willingly, and needlessly, returning to a fossil fuel-is-king approach that does the exact opposite of putting America first when it comes to using public lands.
I saw firsthand how far the Bush administration and its allies would go in their “headlong rush” to open more public lands to drilling. Angered by Salazar’s actions, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) delayed my nomination as deputy secretary for four months in retaliation. While I waited in the confirmation penalty box, I began working with career officials across agencies to understand how the Bureau of Land Management (a part of the Department of the Interior) was making its leasing decisions.
It was not a pretty picture. We learned that the Bush administration had engaged in a long process to update BLM resource management plans for Utah but, in the end, it simply threw open virtually the entire expanse of BLM lands for oil and gas drilling, giving BLM land managers little or no guidance on how to weigh oil and gas drilling requests against opponents’ concerns about the impact of drilling on the visitor experience for the millions of visitors who enjoy national parks or the recreationists using adjacent BLM lands in the Moab area.
It was a debacle. Our examination confirmed that many of the parcels were offered for drilling sight-unseen, and on the doorstep of sensitive landscapes including Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and cultural-artifact-rich Nine Mile Canyon. We found that BLM officials, pushed to put more public lands out for drilling, gave no warning to and did not consult with the National Park Service before its lease sale, meaning that BLM short-circuited the opportunity for other agencies, and the public, to make the case that these lands were worth preserving as irreplaceable national treasures and not merely untapped oil and gas fields.
This prompted common-sense reforms, undertaken during the Obama years, that returned balance to the public lands leasing process. For key areas, like Moab, where there were strong, conflicting views regarding the appropriateness of elevating oil and gas drilling over competing uses, local, state, tribal and federal officials helped assemble Master Leasing Plans to guide BLM decision-making. In addition, for all BLM lands, preleasing decision-making processes were strengthened and clarified to include site visits, multidisciplinary team reviews, and opportunities for public input.
The current administration, though, just ditched Master Leasing Plans, doing away with this eminently sensible process. It nixed preleasing site visits, and multidisciplinary team reviews, too. It cut the leasing process to a lightning-quick 60 days. Public input? No, thanks.
Jettisoning these reforms is a manifestation of the targeting of our public lands and offshore waters to accomplish Trump’s goal of “energy dominance” — part of a new lexicon that would puzzle any true Teddy Roosevelt disciple, particularly given his admonition that:
“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.”
Indeed, despite his allusions to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his team are consciously and aggressively casting aside a long list of environmental, health and safety protections for valued public lands, as well as rules that protect taxpayers from being fleeced by energy companies: They’re repealing oil and gas operator requirements for fracking; rolling back rules that restrict wasteful venting and flaring of unwanted gas; and axing reforms requiring coal, oil and gas companies to pay royalties at an appropriate level. He’s also quashed, midstream, a federal coal program review that already had identified serious improprieties.
It gets worse: The administration is pushing for increased Atlantic and Pacific offshore drilling, despite strong opposition from the attorneys general of several coastal states, led by North Carolina’s attorney general, Josh Stein, who noted, “Thousands of North Carolinians and 30 coastal communities have voiced their opposition to drilling off North Carolina’s shores.” In the Arctic, the administration is eager to begin drilling in the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and in the equally pristine western Arctic. In the Lower 48, Zinke is moving back toward drilling in a sensitive sage grouse habitat and culturally important lands near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
The tragic irony is that it is more the administration than the oil and gas industry demanding this plunder. The industry’s growth is rooted in shale formations, the vast majority of which are not located on public lands. That’s why Zinke’s recent, largest lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska were duds, and why, according to reports, as of 2016, more than half of the 27 million acres the oil and gas industry has under lease lay idle.
We should not be surprised by the Trump administration’s frenzied effort to turn over our public lands and offshore waters to oil and gas drilling. Throughout his campaign, Trump pandered to major energy-sector executives and donors, promising deregulation, and made lofty promises to energy-sector workers, particularly those in coal country, about jobs. To make a show out of living up to those promises, what better place to start than by loosening constraints on lands that the administration controls? Never mind that it’s our heritage and gift to future generations that Trump and Zinke are messing with. Never mind that there’s a difference between carefully considered deregulation and heedless abandonment of environmental obligations.
At this rate, the next president who values public lands will have to do a do-over of recent history, rolling back a rollback of reforms meant to put public lands — a vital part of our American heritage — first.