Energy “dominance” on public lands could push protection for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation to the wayside. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

What Trump’s energy plan actually means

Selling out our public lands to oil, gas, and coal companies — at enormous cost to Americans.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has been busy making symbolic changes to its public face. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) changed its website banner photo from two hikers enjoying a scenic landscape to a massive coalbed.

DOI removed references to science from its mission, but added a line about “providing energy to power our future.”

And, with little fanfare, BLM took a vintage-style poster series launched to celebrate the nation’s conservation lands and repurposed it to highlight energy production.

Oil and gas derricks, colored buff to visually downplay their impact on the landscape, captured in BLM’s vintage-style poster series originally launched to celebrate national monuments. Photo: Chase Huntley/TWS

These simple acts provide a glimpse into an extreme shift in public lands policy led by President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

In embracing the pursuit of “energy dominance,” the Trump administration is effectively saying that there is no more important use for our shared public lands than fossil fuel development.

By definition, energy is the dominant use now prioritized above all else — despite potential damage it could have to our beloved national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas.

While ostensibly opposing the selloff of public lands to private interests, there is growing evidence that the administration will be aggressively working to sell out public lands to fossil energy companies regardless of the cost to our lands, our air, our safety, and our public health.

Here are several reasons why that is a bad idea.

1. Energy companies already have more land than they need.

Energy development has always taken place on our public lands, and management policy has long been skewed toward coal, oil, and gas extraction — to the detriment of other uses, like recreation and wildlife conservation. In fact, 90 percent of all multiple-use public lands are currently open for energy development.

At a time of across-the-board cuts, the President’s budget proposes to increase oil and gas permitting by 27 percent and coal leasing activities by 73 percent (while cutting renewable energy permitting in half!). But in reality, there is no reason oil, gas, and coal companies need more public lands.

The oil and gas industry already controls tens of millions of acres that it doesn’t use. As of fiscal year 2016, only 12.8 million acres (47 percent) of the public lands held by the oil and gas industry are under production — meaning an area the size of West Virginia is sitting idle and unavailable for other uses. Interior Department policies allow oil and gas companies to sit on some leases indefinitely without paying rents. But even where companies intend to drill, they are sitting on almost 6,000 approved drilling permits — that’s nearly four years’ worth of ready-to-use permits.

The fact is the current glut of U.S.-produced oil and gas has meant less of an appetite for new leases. Oil prices remain low, and natural gas price forecasts were recently downgraded by government economists, due in part to strong production on public lands. That’s why in recent years companies have only bid on 15 percent [CH1] of the lease parcels they themselves nominated!

Meanwhile, coal companies have 20 years of coal under lease on public lands. But demand for coal from public lands is down 31 percent from 2011, and new applications for leases are few and far between, despite the Trump administration’s recent cancellation of the leasing moratorium. With domestic demand drying up and no new markets in Asia, there appears to be little demand to lease significantly more coal.

The Trump administration wants to open up more land for fossil fuel development. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

In spite of evidence showing the real problem is excess, not access, President Trump and Secretary Zinke have indicated that they want to open up even protected areas to unfettered energy development in an unprecedented, and possibly illegal, land grab.

Under the guise of “reviews,” “assessments,” and “studies,” the administration is rolling back dozens of commonsense regulations and programs designed to conserve public lands for the American people, setting up our public lands for an enormous energy giveaway at our expense.

2. A blind pursuit of “energy dominance” could cost us.

Through a variety of broad executive orders, secretarial orders, budget proposals, and staffing shifts, President Trump and his cabinet are attacking smart energy and environment policies, threatening our system of protected lands, undermining participatory democracy, and endangering our climate.

Sacrificing places too wild to drill

There has been tremendous progress in recent years in specifying which places are appropriate for drilling — and which places are not. Those policies and places now appear back on the table as possible for drilling.

Look no further than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In May, Secretary Zinke ordered the Interior Department to assess how much oil is in the refuge; at 19 million acres, it is America’s largest wildlife refuge and one of the wildest places left on Earth. In addition, President Trump has asked Congress to sneak Arctic Refuge drilling into the budget instead of using the regular legislative process.

Massive caribou herds depend on the Arctic Refuge, but the threat of drilling is growing. Photo: Peter Mather

For 50 years, the Arctic Refuge has been protected with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Undoing protections for the area and authorizing drilling would not help our economy or create jobs in the near term — it is merely a political football.

But the impacts of drilling are anything but symbolic. Exploring for oil in the refuge would have devastating impacts on the pristine and fragile ecosystem, including fragmenting important habitat. And the inevitable spills of oil and other toxic substances would irreparably harm fragile tundra.

And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s open-ended review of national monuments, announced May 5, has the potential to undo protections for 27 national monuments and hand those sites over to mining, oil, and gas interests. At the center of the review is Bears Ears National Monument, which protects land in Utah considered sacred by tribes in the region. The monument may have sizeable mineral resources within its boundaries.

But even oil and gas insiders recognize there are some places too wild and too sacred to drill, and have called on the administration to keep the monument intact.

Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument is under review and at risk of losing protections. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

Reversing course on commonsense policies

The wide-ranging “energy independence” executive order President Trump signed on Mar. 28 directed the Interior Department to review, revise, or rescind a number of guidelines concerning where and how energy can be developed on public land, including guidelines governing how and whether drilling can occur near to National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge lands. If these guidelines and programs are defunded or eliminated, uncontrolled leasing and drilling will certainly lead to more protests and lawsuits.

Of particular concern is the potential loss of an innovative tool called Master Leasing Planning, a new BLM approach to landscape-level planning that involves multiple stakeholders early in the process, in order to reduce conflict around energy development on public lands.

Turning away from public input & transparency

From day 1, the Trump administration has excluded the public from its policy development process in a blow to transparency — and contrary to principles of good governance.

Through secretive “reviews” of policies with no meaningful opportunity for the public to comment, Secretary Zinke has systematically precluded the Interior Department from being accountable to the American people. The department has an enormous backlog of FOIA requests, and it’s unclear when — or whether — it will respond. And Secretary Zinke rarely grants interview requests to members of the mainstream media.

On the other hand, he regularly meets behind closed doors with energy executives.

Ignoring climate consequences

The energy independence” executive order also targets several Obama-era efforts to update federal lands policy to consider and address climate change — since our public lands generate more than one-fifth of U.S. greenhouse gases.

One of the targeted policies required the analysis of climate change consequences to and from any large infrastructure project. Another policy made sure that the social cost of carbon was used in all analyses to help determine the real costs and benefits to society of federal regulations and projects.

Yet our ability to address climate change in a timely way is dependent on public lands being part of the equation.

Undermining wildlife conservation at the large scale

Secretary Zinke’s review of sage grouse conservation plans, announced in early June, is an unnecessary attempt to open critical habitat to oil and gas drilling — one of the primary threats to the bird’s habitat. The sage-grouse is an indicator species, meaning that it acts as a bellwether for the entire sagebrush steppe habitat — which is important for more than 300 other species including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk.

3. We are already paying for the fossil fuel frenzy.

Public lands belong to the American people, not oil, gas, and coal companies. And by law, they must be managed for many different uses, not just energy extraction. When that’s done right, it means our most special places are protected, energy development takes place in the right places and in responsible ways, and communities enjoy sustainable economies with plentiful jobs. But when it’s done wrong, we are the ones who pay.

Bottom line:
Energy development has long played an outsized role on public lands, and is already treated as a preferred tenant. That has created numerous burdens that are borne by the American people. These burdens will only get worse if we follow the path being set by Trump and Zinke.
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