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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Mar 30 2020

100-Year-Old Public Land Policy Puts Industry over People

It’s high time to end non-competitive leasing and stop the Interior Department from selling out public lands to oil and gas

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If you’ve been around MWA for a while or at least paid attention to how the federal government manages public land, you might be familiar with something the Bureau of Land Management calls a “resource management plan” (RMP). 

You can think of RMPs as zoning codes, determining what specific uses and projects will be considered and allowed in certain areas for the life of the RMP, which is usually a  few decades. One critical consideration the BLM makes in these RMPs is the suitability of areas for future oil and gas leasing, exploration, and development by private companies. 

The BLM recently released an RMP that would allow oil and gas development on 95% of the 650,000 acres administered by the agency’s Lewistown Field Office. A 2016 draft of this RMP would have protected more than 100,000 acres. This final draft offers no protection whatsoever for wilderness, making it apparent that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tailored the plan for his former clients and bosses in the oil and gas industry. He did so despite the more than 800 comments the BLM received from the public calling on it to protect the intact prairie grasslands in the area that make this one of the most productive areas in North America for big game and other wildlife. 

This RMP will set the stage for the sale of oil and gas leases on some of our wildest public lands in central Montana. Under Bernhardt, the BLM has made it extremely difficult for the public to have a say on these sales. The agency has limited public comments and environmental reviews and accelerated permitting, with the BLM now selling leases in many states, including Montana, four times a year, more than ever before.

 

Worse yet, these mineral leases turn public lands over to private hands, preventing the BLM from protecting these lands for wildlife, clean water, cultural significance, and other values.

 

Making matters worse, the fiscal policies that guide the BLM in the oil and gas leasing program are woefully out-of-date, drastically favoring industry over people. While the leasing process starts with a round of competitive bidding, there is an incentive to sit out the competitive bid and game the process, because parcels that go without competitive bids are then available the very next day for “off the shelf” purchases that do not go through a competitive process. These non-competitive lease sales enable companies to buy 10-year leases for $1.50 an acre, the first year’s rent on a lease, plus a nominal administrative fee. 

The practice of noncompetitive leasing is a hold-over from the 100-year-old Mineral Leasing Act that still guides these practices. The minimum price companies must offer to lease land haven’t been updated since the 1980s. These fiscal policies, along with the massive push for leasing and extraction under the current administration’s “energy dominance” policy, make it easy for private companies to acquire dirt-cheap leases on public lands that have little oil and gas potential. 

That means that instead of prioritizing lands for conservation and recreation, current BLM policy allows companies to lease parcels of lands that are unlikely to ever be developed and to manage them mostly as they see fit, which could include locking the public out. 

Why would companies buy up leases they won’t develop? Because it inflates their holdings and makes companies look more attractive to potential investors. These private companies are, in effect, using our public lands in a grand land speculation scheme, and not even paying us remotely what these publicly owned resources are worth. 

Montana, in particular, has become ground zero for noncompetitive leasing. According to a recent study from Taxpayers for Common Sense, 18% of oil and gas leases across the country were issued noncompetitively in 2018. In Montana, nearly 72% of leases were issued under this dubious process that same year. From 2009 to 2018, the BLM leased a whopping 261,000 acres of public land non competitively, which has contributed to Montana losing out on $110 million in oil and gas royalties and related payments during that time. 

Worse yet, these mineral leases turn public lands over to private hands, preventing the BLM from protecting these lands for wildlife, clean water, cultural significance, and other values. 

Noncompetitive leasing is not unique to the Interior Department under Bernhardt, but the ways in which this administration has thrown the doors of our public lands open to private companies is unprecedented. This administration has cultivated a culture of unfettered leasing in the name of energy dominance, encouraging companies to grab up as many leases as they possibly can. 

It’s high time Congress put an end to such outdated oil-and-gas leasing practices. Our relationships with our public lands are a lot more complex than they were in 1920, and it’s time our laws reflect 21st century values. 

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Aubrey Bertram
Eastern Montana field director

Aubrey works with communities to protect eastern Montana’s prairies, badlands, and island mountain ranges. She spends her time skiing, hiking, and running, volunteering with civic organizations in Billings, and exploring public lands with her two dogs.
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