Pausing new oil leasing is the first step towards overhauling our broken, rigged, and outdated public lands drilling system

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Pronghorn antelope near drilling rigs in Wyoming | Theo Stein, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

According to Politico, the Biden administration will implement a one-year moratorium on issuing new oil and gas leases while it evaluates the impact of America’s public lands drilling program on our climate, communities, and taxpayers. This is a commonsense first step that begins the long-overdue process of reform.

The oil industry has launched a Chicken Little-inspired campaign to convince the public that a pause would mean the end of oil drilling and cost thousands of jobs. A quick look at publicly-available data and recent studies shows just how disingenuous this argument is.

The oil and gas industry has amassed a huge backlog of leases and drilling permits that they aren’t even using. …

After four years of giveaways to the oil industry, opportunity emerges to modernize system for drilling on public lands

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Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

Over the last four years, the Trump administration moved rapidly to dramatically expand drilling on public lands and slash public health and environmental safeguards to benefit the oil and gas industry. Led by former oil lobbyist Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the administration took full advantage of an outdated legal system that allows oil and gas companies to identify where they want to drill, easily obtain drilling permits, and pay minuscule royalties to taxpayers for extracting publicly-owned oil and gas.

The administration made no attempt to hide its drill-everywhere agenda, branding and promoting it as “energy dominance.” The geographic scope of this push was immense, with drilling leases offered from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in imperiled sage-grouse habitat and on the doorstep of national parks. Further, the elimination of regulations designed to reduce natural gas flaring and venting, as well as rules aimed at increasing the safety and transparency of fracking, will impact communities for years to come. …

The former oil lobbyist has built a shameful legacy for our parks, public lands, and wildlife

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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt joined the Trump administration after a lucrative career as a lawyer and lobbyist for drilling and mining companies. In office, he has raced to enact the policy priorities of the oil, gas, and mining industries at the expense of vulnerable communities across the country. Such blatant favoritism has required bending laws and ethics rules, all of which has led to Bernhardt’s dismal record in the courts.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Institute for Policy Integrity found that more than 80% of Interior Department actions challenged in court have not been upheld by federal judges. For example, a federal judge recently invalidated an Interior Department legal opinion that would allow oil companies to inadvertently kill migratory birds without penalties. In another case, a judge ruled Secretary Bernhardt had illegally kept acting Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley in office, thereby invalidating new policies he had a role in crafting. …

Public land provisions would be step towards protecting 30% of America by 2030

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The Thompson Divide would be protected by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act, included in the House National Defense Authorization Act | Photo by Jon Mullen, courtesy of The Wilderness Society

Just months after passing the historic Great American Outdoors Act, Congress is once again poised to pass major conservation legislation. Negotiators for the House and Senate are hoping to reach an agreement on a must-pass defense spending bill, including provisions that would protect iconic landscapes across the West. Passing these bills would be a key step towards protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, a bold goal that scientists say would combat the climate and nature crises, while strengthening economies and improving public health.

This summer, both chambers of Congress passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), annual legislation that directs spending for national defense agencies. In recent years, the NDAA has been used as a vehicle for public land and wildlife provisions. A Congressional conference committee is now looking to finalize a compromise bill, which would then be passed and signed into law during the upcoming “lame duck” session. Notably, the House version of the NDAA includes three key provisions, which, if adopted, would create lasting protections for public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington. …

With two months left, Interior Department has long list of damaging policy changes

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The Trump administration is working to advance drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | Danielle Brigida

Over the past three and a half years, the Trump administration has left a wake of destruction when it comes to managing our parks, public lands, and wildlife. Under the leadership of former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt and scandal-plagued former Congressman Ryan Zinke, the Interior Department finalized sweeping policy changes, eliminating rules to reduce methane emissions from drilling on public lands, rolling back regulations to increase the safety and transparency of hydraulic fracturing, watering down offshore drilling safety rules enacted after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, dramatically shrinking national monuments in Utah, and weakening enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

Now, with just over two months left, the Trump administration is racing to finalize even more destructive policies — from advancing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to reducing protections for endangered species and migratory birds.

Interior Department announces the gray wolves in the Lower 48 will no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act

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Gray Wolf | Eric Kilby, Flickr

Gray wolves across the continental United States are set to lose long-held protections under the Endangered Species Act. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced his department was formally removing the species from the endangered species list, opening the door for states to allow increased hunting and trapping. A new analysis by the Center for Western Priorities finds the Trump administration ignored overwhelming public opposition in delisting the gray wolf.

In the 20th century, wolf populations plummeted across the United States, as government-sanctioned hunting programs helped eradicate the species from vast portions of its historical range. After the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the gray wolf was included on the first list of species to receive protections in 1974, classified as “endangered.” Since then, wolf populations have rebounded slightly in some places, and wolves have been reintroduced in several locations, most notably in Yellowstone National Park. …

From cutting national monument protections to advancing a boondoggle pipeline draining Colorado River water, agency moves full steam ahead despite pandemic

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The Interior Department is advancing plans to construct a water pipeline originating in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (pictured above) | Ken Xu

Last Friday, President Trump traveled to Maine to sign a proclamation rolling back essential protections for the only national monument off our Atlantic coast. The previous day, Trump signed an executive order aiming to greenlight drilling, mining, and highway projects by sidestepping bedrock conservation laws, removing critical public input opportunities on projects that disproportionately impact communities of color. The moves capped a particularly destructive week in which the Interior Department rolled back key environmental safeguards and advanced destructive policy changes.

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was established in 2016 to protect the edge of Georges Bank, an incredibly diverse and important fishery home to endangered whales and other rare species. Notably, the monument’s designation came after extensive discussions with regional stakeholders, from conservationists to fishermen. President Trump ordered the monument to be open to commercial fishing, directly undermining protections, even though federal data shows fishing revenues and landings did not decline after the monument’s designation. …

Companies that met with Trump paid more than $6 billion in royalties over 6 years

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Oil rigs in California | John Ciccarelli, Bureau of Land Management

Facing historically low oil prices and dwindling demand due to the coronavirus, oil and gas corporations have laid off workers, shut down drill rigs, and slashed stock dividends. The one-two punch comes as the industry has spent a decade racking up immense debt, rarely turning a profit. Now, the oil industry and their allies in Congress are asking the Trump administration for a wish list of rollbacks, from extending the terms of drilling leases and permits to reducing environmental enforcement.

One rollback in particular would deprive states and the federal government of critically needed revenue during the economic downturn — reducing or suspending royalty payments to taxpayers for producing publicly-owned oil and gas. Who would benefit? Oil companies that recently met with President Trump and offshore drillers in the National Ocean Industries Association, a former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

On the 100th anniversary of the Mineral Leasing Act, analysis shows reform is desperately needed

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Natural gas flare in New Mexico’s Permian Basin | Blake Thornberry

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 into law, providing a framework for oil and gas companies to lease public lands and compensate taxpayers for the extraction of publicly-owned resources. Through massive lobbying efforts from oil and gas trade associations and corporations to keep the status quo, the law has largely remained intact since then; the latest significant update was in 1987.

The result? Oil and gas companies have taken advantage of a wildly outdated system, snapping up leases on public lands at bargain rates, paying virtually nothing to sit on idle leases, and depriving U.S. taxpayers of billions in royalties thanks to low royalty rates. A comparison of royalty rates by the Center for Western Priorities shows that taxpayers could have received more than $10 billion in royalties over the last five years if higher royalty rates had been in place, highlighting the pressing need to reform the laws regulating the production of oil and gas on public lands. …

Tracking the Interior Department’s remaining policy changes impacting lands, water, and wildlife — Updated 12.21.2020

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Lightning over New Mexico’s Organ Mountains | David Turning, Bureau of Land Management

Note: This analysis was last updated on December 21, 2020.

With just one month left in the Trump administration, the Interior Department has a long list of policy changes it is seeking to enact, with major ramifications for our public lands. These proposals would add to a destructive record of rolling back protections for wildlife, suppressing public input, and dramatically expanding drilling and mining throughout the country.

Launched in January, 2020, an ongoing analysis by the Center for Western Priorities has identified 92 policies the Interior Department is seeking to implement, further weakening protections for wildlife and expanding fossil fuel development on public lands. Since then, the department has completed 23 policies, including finalizing land use plans to allow increased development on land cut from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah, weakening air quality standards for offshore drilling, and developing a plan to offer oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. …


Jesse Prentice-Dunn

Policy Director | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO

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