Sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of this nation's public lands for present and future generations' use and enjoyment will require a rebalancing of costs and benefits — past policies too often favored the few.
Public lands range from vast wilderness areas with little human activity to national parks packed with people. Designated uses for most public lands were guided by policies based on present needs with little regard for the future.
Fossil fuel companies presently hold leases to more than 26 million acres of public lands across the the Western United States. BLM data show about 11 million acres were leased for oil and gas development without competition — companies paid as little as $1.50 an acre to lock up the rights to public lands with a lease.
More than half of the leases held by oil and gas companies have yet to be drilled or developed, but the leases grant those who hold them the authority to block public access. That robs taxpayers of revenue that might be generated if the land was available for public use.
Even when leases are developed, taxpayers often end up footing the bill for cleaning them up as a result of outdated federal bonding rates. Oil and gas companies often abandon wells when production declines, neglecting the obligation to plug them and restore the site.
The authors of a recent study estimate it could cost $280 billion to plug the 2.6 million orphan wells that oil and gas companies abandoned in the United States without plugging. Not all of those orphan wells are on public lands, but by some estimates there are hundreds of thousands of unplugged wells on public lands.
Companies that left behind an expensive mess also might have underpaid for the resources that were extracted from public lands. A Project on Government Oversight policy analyst, during recent congressional testimony, said companies that leased public land to develop and drill paid royalties at rates set a century ago — far less than what they pay to private property owners.
The U.S. Department of the Interior recently reiterated its priorities as steward and protector of public lands and the environment. Under the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the agency identified five priorities that will further the Bureau of Land Management's mission for public lands.
Those priorities include the identification of ways to accelerate responsible development of renewable energy on public lands and waters, and strengthening government-to-government relations with sovereign tribal nations. They also include the development of a plan to conserve at least 30% of public lands and waters by 2030 and the establishment of a Climate Conservation Corps that will create good jobs.
The common thread that strings all of these together is the focus on how to benefit the most people rather than enriching only a few.
Oil and gas executives cried foul when a new administration hit the pause button for new oil and gas leases on public lands. Those objections rang hollow, considering they are sitting on millions of undeveloped acres already leased and demand for their product likely has passed its peak and is now declining.
Many made fortunes by an economy driven by fossil fuels, but much was squandered while attempting to discount the environmental harm it caused. Policies favoring the industry exacerbated existing inequities, and communities of color, low-income families and rural residents suffered disproportionately as a result of air, land and water pollution.
The bill has come due on policies that favored extraction and exploitation of public lands and dismissed the importance of conservation. Rebalancing the costs and benefits of our public lands should favor taxpayers, not profiteers.
D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix.