Secretary Zinke and the Great Public Lands Wholesale
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will offer up nearly 4 million acres of public lands for lease this year, much of it for dirt cheap
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
The United States is now likely the world’s largest oil producer. Even so, the Trump administration continues its sprint to lease the nation’s public lands to energy companies.
From September through the end of the year, the Bureau of Land Management will offer leases for oil and gas drilling on nearly 3 million acres of public lands, according to government statistics compiled by the Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities. That would mean, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, that for the entire year the administration will have offered for lease almost 4 million acres in the Lower 48 alone.
That’s a nearly four-fold increase over 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. And that doesn’t include lease sales in Alaska and in public waters such as the Gulf of Mexico, where Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has vigorously pushed leasing as part of the administration’s policy of energy dominance.
To that end, Zinke has directed BLM offices, which oversee the public’s oil and gas deposits, to hold lease sales every quarter. Master leasing plans, or broader planning for the landscape, have been scuttled. Opportunities for the public to comment have been shortened, or dispensed with altogether. The energy industry has cheered these changes, saying the old ways were sclerotic and discouraged sensible development.
“We’re risking this heritage so that the Secretary of the Interior can have a messaging moment.”
For the Interior Department this kind of wholesale leasing seems to be what they most loudly tout. Earlier this month it issued a press release crowing about third-quarter lease sales in New Mexico that brought in nearly $1 billion. “Critics of the Administration’s American Energy Dominance policy often falsely claim there is little to no interest in Federal oil and gas leases,” Zinke said in the release. “Today, they are eating their words and once again President Trump’s policies are bearing fruit for the American people. The people of New Mexico will see about a half a billion dollars of this right back into their roads, schools, and public services.”
But this headlong rush to lease is bearing mixed fruit, in more ways than one.
Even as the New Mexico lease sale broke records, in Nevada, no one bid on roughly 300,000 acres offered for sale this week. That exemplifies the BLM’s haphazard and frantic leasing, say critics such as Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society.
The agency is offering up parcels for auction just to obey Zinke’s directive—without thought to whether it is wise, and regardless of consequence, says Culver. “We’re seeing millions and millions of acres put up for sale, and they aren’t being screened.” In Montana, one parcel lay beneath a river, the Wilderness Society found.
But often the issues are more serious. Earlier this month, the BLM leased to energy companies land just outside Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. And this week, 134,000 acres were leased in a much larger offering in Utah, with much of that land going for the federal minimum of $2 per acre. The Salt Lake Tribune dubbed the auction a “bust.” Even so, environmentalists are upset because some of the leases are near Canyonlands National Park’s Horseshoe Canyon, the paper reported, and others are near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
In this week’s sale, and another coming in December, the BLM has proposed leases totaling about 535,000 acres around Utah. Areas include the Book Cliffs; the culturally sensitive lands east of Bears Ears National Monument; near national parks (Hovenweep National Monument), and in wild, undeveloped backcountry around the White River.
“We’re risking this heritage so that the Secretary of the Interior can have a messaging moment,” says Culver. “And his moment will pass, and we will be left with the wreckage.”
In Colorado, the BLM is planning to offer 236,000 acres for lease, and the proposed sale concerns the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, who pointed out recently that more than 108,000 acres of the sale is in “priority and general habitat” for the greater sage-grouse. The grouse is a chicken-like bird whose numbers are in steep decline throughout the interior West. Despite its free fall, the Interior Department trashed a plan, years in the making, aimed at protecting the bird. The administration’s new plan makes it easier for companies to lease and drill in those good-habitat areas. For example, in Montana, environmental groups say nearly 75 percent of parcels proposed for a December sale lie in important sage grouse habitat.
Leasing public lands is hardly new or without controversy, of course. Though the Obama administration offered a declining number of acres throughout its eight years, even it was no slouch when it came to allowing drilling on public lands. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy resulted in leasing more than 1 million acres of public lands annually across the Lower 48—and sometimes much more—almost every year of his presidency.
But under Secretary Zinke, the Trump administration is blowing away those figures, and seem dead set on offering up public lands as quickly as possible, for cheaper than dirt.