Guest column:

Royalty rates for leasing public lands are outdated

As we pass one year of the COVID-19 crisis, I have been reflecting on the ways Nevada’s cherished public lands have provided light during these dark times. For many of us, the great outdoors have provided the only place for safe and socially-distanced activities outside of our homes. And even before the pandemic, Nevada’s public lands have consistently been a pillar in our economy, generating $1.1 billion in state and local tax revenue each year.

In Nevada, we have always honored the importance of our public lands, but these unprecedented times have shown us just how irreplaceable these special places truly are. That is why I support the Biden administration’s commitment to reviewing our nation’s oil and gas leasing system on public lands. Unfortunately, in spite of how important access to our public lands is to our economy and livelihoods here in Nevada, this decades-old system puts our way of life at risk. Between 2014 and 2018, 70% of all acres leased in Nevada were leased noncompetitively, at the rock-bottom price of $1.50 per acre. To make matters worse, the vast majority of this land has low to no potential for drilling, which means little to no return for taxpayers but big risks for mule-deer and sage grouse habitat.

This speculative leasing wastes finite government resources, generates little revenue for taxpayers and prioritizes oil and gas companies over activities like hunting and fishing, tourism and outdoor recreation. Our state’s outdoor recreation economy, which sustains 59,000 jobs, depends on the health and accessibility of our landscapes and wildlife. Enough is enough, it’s time for reform.

Fortunately, Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has introduced a common sense bill to end speculative leasing, level the playing field for Western communities and uphold the Bureau of Land Management’s mission to manage our public lands for their multiple uses.

Cortez Masto’s legislation is an important step toward improving the federal leasing system, but speculative leasing is just one of many outdated policies plaguing our public lands. The revenue generated from oil and gas development helps to fund schools, health care and infrastructure projects — but our communities are getting shortchanged. A royalty rate set more than a century ago no longer fits with the 21st-century needs of our state, towns and families, and yet it is still in place. According to the Government Accountability Office, if oil and gas royalty rates were modernized, revenues for the federal government and states could increase by $20 million to $38 million per year. This is revenue that could go toward funding state priorities and emergencies, like supporting overburdened hospitals during the pandemic.

A majority of Nevadans supports raising the federal onshore royalty rate. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., responded to her constituents’ concerns in March when she joined forces with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to introduce a bipartisan solution to bring royalty rates and other policies into the 21st century and ensure oil and gas companies pay their fair share for our public lands.

As President Joe Biden and his administration begin the important process of reviewing the outdated federal leasing system, I implore them to support the policies that Sens. Cortez Masto, Rosen and Grassley have championed. It is critical that our leaders take swift action to update the leasing system so that it works for all of us, not just the oil and gas industry.

Russell Kuhlman is the executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.