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August 08, 2013 4:08 PM Public Lands Aren’t Just for Oil and Gas

By Devin Castles

The extraordinary oil and gas boom the U.S. has experienced in the last few years has led to growing concerns over how the government should protect and manage its public land, including the 38 million acres currently being leased to oil and gas companies for drilling. While the president has opened up 6.5 million acres of land for drilling since taking office, he has protected fewer acres - 2.5 million - than any previous president in the last 30 years. The GOP-controlled Congress has done even less. Last session, for the first time in decades, it failed to protect a single acre of land.

Environmental groups, citing overwhelming support for protecting public lands in the West, believe they can use this as an election issue in 2014. With Congressional Republicans rabidly opposed to protecting any new lands, groups like the Sierra Club are focused on building support among local communities and politicians to pressure the White House to act. If Obama were to designate Browns Canyon in Colorado a national monument, say, the Sierra Club believes that would be a boon to the reelection efforts of Coloradan Senator Mark Udall, who has introduced legislation to protect 22,000 acres there.

Looking to help buttress the economic argument for preserving public land, a recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) points out that the economic benefits of the outdoor recreational opportunities these lands provide - fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, etc. - are often greatly underappreciated and insufficiently measured. According to the report, in some “recreational hotspots,” outdoor recreation can generate as much revenue in fees as leasing the land for timber or grazing.

CAP’s also highlights the fact that public lands are being leased to oil and gas companies under antiquated, industry-friendly leasing policies that don’t adequately compensate taxpayers for the value being derived from the land, or the costly environmental externalities involved in the extraction process.

The agency in charge of leasing drilling permits, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), uses fixed royalty rates that haven’t changed since the 1920s, and relies on 20-year-old guidelines for measuring oil and gas. CAP estimates that this leads to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue each year. On top of that, the BLM actually leases out the land before evaluating the environmental impacts of drilling on a particular site, opening themselves up to delays, added costs and litigation.

Obama spent too much time promising to out-drill Romney during the election to make even bright-eyed tree-loving naifs like me believe his second term will be radically different. But I hope that he at least recognizes the tension between his climate goals and our current energy policy, makes a renewed commitment to protecting valuable wilderness and open space, and modernizes our leasing practices so we aren’t missing out on revenue that can go toward mitigation, cleanup and preservation.

Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

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