Future Looking Like the Past:

Interior Department sets out on alarming path to put fossil fuel companies first on public lands

The recent Department of the Interior Secretarial Orders and leaked priorities document from the Bureau of Land Management are a real blast from the past and threaten to set energy development on public lands back decades, in stark contrast to the desires of the American public.

During the Bush administration, the oil, gas and coal industries largely had free reign on public lands in a “Drill, Baby, Drill” world. This was a problem in many ways: it permanently scarred the landscape, undermined public access to our lands, and created massive conflicts with local communities that tied up lands and projects in protests and courts.

Upper Green River Basin in WY, once teeming with big game Credit: Peter Aengst, TWS

For example, in Wyoming, the Upper Green River Basin was a wonderful place for big game hunting and amazing scenery. However, the Bush administration was more than happy to allow oil and gas companies have their way with the land. Now it is nothing more than an oil and gas field. The public has been shut out and the pollution has been terrible for the people of the area. In this sparsely populated area, ozone action days were plentiful due to the pollution from oil and gas development.

The Obama administration worked to put in place reforms to alleviate these issues. And in fact, they succeeded. Master Leasing Plans helped bring the public to the table in deciding where development should happen, and importantly, where it should not. Decades old policies were updated to ensure a fair return to American taxpayers. Solar energy was prioritized on our public lands for the first time ever. The scales started to level between conservation and development.

Furthermore, the previous administration took steps to address the greatest threat to our public lands: climate change. The administration made strides to try and make sure that decisions regarding development on our lands included analysis on the effects to the climate so that the government and the public could start to understand how development affected the climate.

And what happened as a result of these reforms? Pollution was reduced. Conflict was reduced. Acres devoted to oil and gas development actually increased on public lands, along with renewable energy. Wild places prized for hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities were protected from development. A balanced approach proved successful.

Thompson Divide in Colorado Credit: EcoFlight

But the Trump Administration is poised to reverse these trends, shut out the public and give oil companies the keys to our public lands.

A recent Bureau of Land Management document outlining the agency’s priorities is alarming. The first priority for the BLM is opening up even more land for energy development. Currently 90 percent of BLM land is open for development, yet only 35 percent of land currently leased is actually being developed. Oil companies already have a massive stockpile of public lands. It doesn’t make sense to shut out the public and give them even more.

Furthermore, priorities include “streamlining” the process to make it easier for oil companies to obtain more land. This is a clear code for cutting corners on environmental reviews and rolling back smart protections, which will threaten places on our public lands that are too wild to destroy.

Drill Rig in Utah’s Big Flats Credit: Mason Cummings, TWS

This is the wrong way to go and flies in the face of what the American people want and the progress that has been made to put conservation on a more equal footing with energy development.

Decisions could be made about the fate of lands owned by all Americans without public input. Shutting us out will only benefit the oil companies who clearly have unlimited access to the administration. By law, management of public lands must be balanced, providing for a variety of uses and for sustained benefits over generations. That means managing for not just energy development, but also conservation and recreation. By directing the BLM to begin rolling back many of the common-sense policies established in recent years for energy development on public lands, the Secretarial Order sends the clear message that more drilling and mining above all else is the priority of the new Department of the Interior.

With the BLM poised to nominate a new director it is crucial that he or she follow the mission of the BLM and the law. That means putting aside places with wildlife, habitat, cultural and recreational value for conservation and only allowing development after significant analysis and public input. While energy development is certainly a part of managing our federal lands, it cannot be elevated above all other uses. The future BLM director needs to make this clear with words and actions that get the BLM back to its mission and duty to serve the American people who own the public lands.

Major reforms and protections were put in place over the last eight years to improve how our public lands are managed. While not everything may have been perfect, we were moving in the right direction. Progress, even incremental progress, is important. But reversing eight years of decisions and reforms driven by the public will have terrible consequences. And the fact that there is a clear desire to reverse that progress without public input and behind closed doors will only make the problem worse. We need a Department of the Interior that is committed to carrying out the wishes of the owners of public lands. That means:

Installing rooftop solar panels Credit: National Forest Service flickr

· Protecting important lands for conservation and ensuring recreation access in certain places;

· Moving towards a clean energy economy;

· Reducing land available for fossil fuel energy development, particularly in areas with low likelihood for development;

· Including climate change analysis in all public land management decisions;

· Offsetting impacts from development with smart conservation investments;

· Ensuring that any development that does occur is done in appropriate places and away from places with conservation potential; and

· Pursuing any policy changes in a transparent way that includes public input.

These principles are crucial to ensuring that the Department of the Interior carries out a legacy worthy of our public lands. We need to continue to push forward towards a balanced approach to managing public lands — an approach that puts conservation on equal footing with development, not one that puts energy development above all. The Obama administration was moving towards that, but from the looks of the first 4 months of this administration, the fear is that we are moving backwards.

Thanks to Jenny Kordick, Alex Daue and Juli Slivka for assistance