Chest-thumping Interior Department claims one success amid a sea of losses

Putting unparalleled landscapes at risk, “energy dominance” has racked up more losses than wins

Lucy Livesay
Sep 12, 2018 · 5 min read
Well pads in New Mexico’s Permian Basin | Google Earth

Last week the Interior Department announced the sale of oil and gas leases covering over 50,700 acres in New Mexico’s Permian Basin for $972.5 million. Like a kid in a candy store, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke celebrated the “historic” lease sale, ignoring the reality of his shortsighted agenda: the rush to lease public lands for energy development has produced more failures than successes and left prized protected lands at risk.

“Critics of the Administration’s American Energy Dominance policy often falsely claim there is little to no interest in Federal oil and gas leases,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Today they are eating their words and once again President Trump’s policies are bearing fruit for the American people.”

That a lease sale in the heart of the Permian Basin would produce interest and yield significant revenues is unsurprising. Anyone with an elementary understanding of oil patch economics would expect the result. The Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas is arguably the most sought after oil play in the world today; experts expect it to become the largest oil patch on earth within the next decade.

Natural gas flare in New Mexico’s Eddy County | Creative Commons, Blake Thornberry

New Mexico’s Permian Basin has launched the state into an oil and gas boom, surpassing production in California and Alaska and establishing New Mexico as the third most productive oil and gas state, behind only Texas and North Dakota. “Permania” has driven prices for oil and gas leases in the basin to astronomical heights. In the Interior Department’s recent lease sale, a single 1,240-acre lease in Eddy County sold for $81,889 per acre, generating $101.5 million — 10 percent of the total revenue generated.

The success of the New Mexico lease sale is a no brainer, but despite the Interior Secretary’s crowing, it fails to eclipse a track record of failures. The Trump administration’s push for “energy dominance” has been a well-established flop:

  • Of the 12.7 million acres of oil and gas leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management prior to the New Mexico sale, 11.4 million acres, or nearly 90 percent, did not receive a single bid from the energy industry. Nearly a quarter of the acres leased sold for the minimum bid of $2 per acre — a far cry from New Mexico’s $81,889 per acre bid — generating only minimal revenue for taxpayers.
  • Of the 77 million acres of offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico offered in one lease sale last March — a record setting lease sale according to Secretary Zinke — companies bid on just one percent of leases.
  • And again, of the 10.3 million acres offered for oil leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska by Secretary Zinke’s Interior Department, only seven bids were received, covering less than one percent of available acreage. Another in a long-line of embarrassing results.

Since the New Mexico sale, the Bureau of Land Management has offered up nearly 500,000 acres in Utah and Nevada for oil and gas development. In Utah, 65 percent of the acres that sold went for the minimum bid. A number of those parcels are at the doorstep of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, where it apparently costs just $2 per acre to buy leases in the shadow of the park’s ancient rock art and cultural sites. In Nevada, the lease sale generated no bids at all.

Canyonlands National Park | Creative Commons, Chao Yen

“Energy dominance” comes a high cost to communities and America’s conservation lands. In the next four months, the Trump administration will offer 2.9 million acres of America’s public lands to oil and gas companies, including lands on the fringes of our national parks and monuments, prime habitat for the imperiled sage-grouse, and critical big game migration corridors.

Just last week, the Bureau of Land Management leased lands at the doorstep of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, bringing energy development within “spitting distance” of the park boundary.

Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park | NPS, Andrew V. Kearns

“It is the height of folly to take this ‘drill everywhere all the time’ approach at a time when domestic production from public lands is already at near record levels,” said New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. “The American people have a right to comment on the management of their lands, and they will fight back against attempts to exploit these special places that belong to all of us.”

According to a new poll from the Center for Western Priorities, 70 percent of likely voters in the West oppose opening up lands near national parks and monuments for oil and gas leasing. In 2017, 88 percent of the oil and gas leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management were contested by the public. As a result, the Interior Department cancelled public comment periods on proposed oil and gas leases and trimmed the window to appeal controversial leases to just 10 days.

The Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda is moving full speed ahead, and with little public accountability and no discretion, mistakes are bound to be made. The price will be the integrity of America’s protected public lands and the landscapes we hand down to future generations.

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Public lands and the outdoors, from the Center for Western Priorities

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