Who’s nominating your public lands for oil and gas leasing? Most of the time, there’s no way to tell

Nearly three of every four nominations to lease public lands for energy development are anonymous

Oil and gas development on Colorado’s Roan Plateau | Photo: EcoFlight

Driven by the Trump administration’s pro-drilling policies, the oil and gas industry is nominating millions and millions of acres of public lands for leasing. In the last fiscal year, the administration has offered up more than 12.8 million acres of public lands to oil and gas companies. But when it comes to identifying exactly who’s nominating public lands for oil and gas development, there’s no way of knowing. Under Trump’s “energy dominance” regime, 73 percent of all nominations to lease public lands were filed anonymously.

Nearly 700 million acres of taxpayer-owned oil and gas are overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Private companies drive the leasing process by nominating parcels of public land for the BLM’s quarterly lease sales. In 2018, the oil and gas industry has already leased 1.35 million acres of public lands, up from 1.2 million acres in 2017.

The Interior Department’s rollback of common sense oil and gas policies — by cutting public comment periods and axing forward-thinking planning processes like Master Leasing Plans — has certainly greased the skids for oil and gas companies, but a lack of transparency throughout the leasing process remains a longstanding problem.

In 2013, a federal judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to release the identities of companies and individuals nominating public lands for oil and gas development. In his decision, the judge wrote that releasing names would allow the public to consider “the stewardship records of that potential owner, a factor relevant to the environmental impact of the proposed sale.”

The BLM responded by announcing a new policy that allowed companies to file lease nominations anonymously, completely undermining the court’s ruling.

Even when oil and gas companies voluntarily disclose identifying information, they frequently use affiliates and lease brokers, known as “landmen,” to maintain anonymity. Landmen shield the industry from public scrutiny by nominating, bidding on, and purchasing leases on behalf of oil and gas companies, all without disclosing who they represent.

In Nevada, where the lack of transparency is particularly notable, 96 percent of all oil and gas nominations were filed anonymously since the start of the Trump administration. The nominated parcels that do include identifying information include the likes of Ethan Murray of Murray Land Services, a landman who nominated 52,500 acres of Nevada’s scenic Ruby Mountains — beloved by hunters, anglers, and hikers alike — for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management’s upcoming Nevada oil and gas lease sale, scheduled for December 11, includes parcels nominated by at least one landman: David M. Evans, who owns Evans Petroleum Land Services. Evans has purchased a number of oil and gas leases over the past several years that the BLM has been forced to terminate, likely as a result of Evans’ failure to pay rent. This pattern is not uncommon, as speculation is endemic to BLM’s leasing program, and is frequently practiced by individuals who walk away from their rental obligations when they are unable to quickly sell their leases to others.

Even the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas lobbying organization involved in the rollback of key, common sense rules overseeing energy development on public lands, agrees that some of these landmen are “bad actors.”

By allowing oil and gas companies to stay anonymous throughout the leasing process, the Bureau of Land Management is systematically limiting accountability and excluding the American people from public land management decisions. As the Trump administration continues to offer up the nation’s public lands for oil and gas development at an unprecedented rate, the need for transparency couldn’t be any clearer.