Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 | 11:45 p.m.
The Bureau of Land Management made the right call recently in removing about 100,000 acres from an upcoming auction of federally controlled Nevada public lands.
But the move was only a partial victory for the state, whose leaders now need to focus on changing federal law to stop such sales altogether.
The auction, which was held Tuesday, involved leasing for oil and gas exploration — fracking, in other words — on acreage in Nye, Lincoln and White Pine counties. It originally was supposed to involve parcels totaling a whopping 570,000-plus acres, which is nearly three-quarters the size of Rhode Island, before being scaled down significantly.
When Nevadans heard about the auction in recent weeks, they justifiably sounded an alarm about the possible effects of fracking on the region’s water supplies.
Those concerns were centered on land in the basin that supplies Mesquite with its drinking water, with the BLM getting an earful from all sorts of city, state and local leaders throughout Southern Nevada. They included Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Gov. Steve Sisolak, Clark County Commission chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Henderson Mayor Debra March and Mesquite Mayor Allan Litman.
This past Friday, Litman stood before a crowd that had gathered to protest the sale and announced proudly that the BLM had decided against auctioning the land in the basin near the city.
“At least for now, we’re out of the woods,” he said, prompting applause.
The “for now” part of that statement was key, though. That’s because the federal Mineral Leasing Act requires that oil and gas lease sales must be held at least four times a year. In Nevada, more sales are scheduled in December and next spring.
So once again, leaders will have to swing into action to protect the basin and other areas from fracking. And then we’ll do it all over again in the spring, and so on.
That being the case, the best course of action would be for local, state and congressional leaders to work toward changing the federal law so that Nevada is exempted from the sale requirement and no longer has to worry about fracking.
It’s abundantly clear that hydraulic drilling makes no sense in Southern Nevada.
First, it’s widely accepted that Nevada is no Texas or New Mexico in terms of untapped oil and gas resources. There’s practically no interest in the land among oil and gas companies, as evidenced by the fact that only two parcels totaling about 4,000 acres were sold Tuesday.
Yet that little reward comes with enormous risks.
Fracking is a patently dangerous proposition in Nevada, where water is exceedingly hard to come by and where our desert environment is becoming ever more stressed due to climate change.
Plus, our water basins are interconnected. Surface water in the disputed acreage near Mesquite flows south into Lake Mead, which is why leaders like Kirkpatrick and March threw their weight behind culling out that acreage from the sale.
There are other risks, as well. Parcels in the December sale pose the possibility of fracking in the Joshua Tree Forest of the Tule desert, in migration corridors of bighorn sheep, in areas of cultural significance for the Southern Paiutes and Western Shoshone, and in historic mining areas.
Then there’s the potential effect on our vibrant outdoor tourism economy. It’s counterintuitive to disturb our natural beauty by opening the desert to drilling operations.
Meanwhile, it can’t be stressed enough that the payoff for these risks would be minimal. It wouldn’t result in Nevada becoming substantially more energy independent or in state residents paying significantly less in energy costs. It would put more demands on environmental regulators, safety inspectors, etc., while generating relatively little in tax revenue for local and state governments.
The only true winners would be oil companies.
The BLM argues that selling the land doesn’t automatically open it to drilling, and that any proposed exploration would have to undergo a thorough assessment to ensure it wouldn’t cause significant environmental damage or present a threat to water supplies.
But this is a textbook case of not believing it when the government and the oil industry say, “Trust us.”
Instead, leaders at all levels need to coalesce around changing the federal law and ending the fracking threat for good on Nevada’s public lands.
Otherwise, we’re never truly going to be out of the woods.