Monday, June 1, 2020 | 2 a.m.
With all eyes focused on the coronavirus pandemic in recent months, the Trump administration quietly handed over vast expanses of Western public lands to the oil industry on the cheap and incentivized drilling across the region.
First, the administration moved forward on sales of public lands for oil and gas leases even as the global oil glut caused the value of that acreage to plummet along with oil prices. That allowed companies to pick up 200,000 acres of land in Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado and Montana for pennies on the dollar.
Then things got even better for big oil when the administration gave companies a break on royalty payments on existing wells. Those royalty payments are taxes imposed on the revenue from resources drilled or mined on public lands.
Oil company executives and shareholders must have been lighting cigars.
The public, on the other hand, took it squarely in the shorts. A big chunk of our scenic landscape was sold for a song, and the tax revenue from it was diminished.
The Trump administration claimed it was encouraging drilling to help the energy industry endure the crisis, but that’s impossible to believe. The logic of incentivizing more drilling at this time is completely haywire: Why drill more during a global glut?
The moves happened as the pandemic-related slowdown in fuel consumption worldwide was causing oil storage facilities to overflow. Tankers were floating around with full loads of petroleum they couldn’t offload. The oil price fell below zero on the stock market for the first time ever, essentially an acknowledgement that oil producers were willing to pay to have the oversupply of crude taken off of their hands.
Nobody in their right mind would sink a new well or pull more oil out of one that was already in the ground, because who was going to buy it?
If President Donald Trump truly wanted to protect the oil companies, he would have limited production to allow the glut to ease and prices to rebound.
This was simply a sweetheart giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, and an extension of the Trump administration’s campaign to let private industry take over public land and have their way with it.
Keep in mind that these leases last for 10 years and are routinely extended. That means the fossil fuel industry could grab the acreage for next to nothing, avoid royalty payments, then sit and wait while the oil market comes back to life.
And if Trump and his administrators were concerned about the energy industry overall and not just lining the pockets of oil and gas companies, then why did the Interior Department slap solar and wind projects on federal land with fat, retroactive rent bills recently?
“It looks like an effort to exploit COVID-19 to give away public resources in ways that are ultimately quite destructive,” said Mark Squillace, professor of natural resource law at University of Colorado Law School, in a story reported by High Country News.
Oil leasing and fracking threaten our natural habitat and rob us of acreage that supports our growing outdoor tourism industry. It also diminishes the scenic beauty of the region, bespoils land of cultural and religious significance to Native American communities, and poses a threat to our most vital resource — water.
Jim McKenna, who served as the California state director for the BLM during a 40-year career in public service, put it well in a column also published in High Country News:
“(Interior Secretary David Bernhardt) panders to oil and gas interests by reducing royalties, handing out small-business loans meant for local businesses, and leasing millions of acres for pennies on the dollar. His actions — carried out under the cover of a national emergency — do not serve taxpayers, state and local governments, or the public interest.
“Instead, the Interior Department should be assuring the American people that our country’s public lands will remain open to the public. Americans should know that their public lands will provide open space for families to safely recreate, support local economies and contribute to clean air and water. This should be just as true after quarantine.”
Indeed it should. For Westerners and all Americans who love the nation’s public lands, parks and conservation areas, the Trump administration can’t be voted out of office soon enough.