David Jenkins: Bargain basement oil and gas leasing exacts huge toll across the West

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Members of the Uintah High School mountain bike team practice on the McCoy Flats trails southwest of Vernal on Oct. 7. Like other trails under development in Uintah County, the McCoy Flats loops cross state trust lands, which are embedded among public lands in checkerboarded sections. Trust lands officials are concerned Utah's expansion of trail-oriented recreation could inhibit mineral development on these lands, which are to be managed to raise money for public education.

A century has passed since enactment of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 and, while much has changed since then, the policies that govern oil and gas activity on our public lands today remain stuck in that bygone era.

Speculators are still able to lock up vast chucks of our land — often for a decade or more — for a measly $2 per acre, even less for parcels offered under non-competitive leasing. In addition, the federal royalty rate of 12.5 percent for oil and gas produced on public lands is far below the market rate.

It all amounts to a massive federal oil and gas subsidy, one that comes at the expense of the American taxpayer, public land users and the Western economy.

The Trump administration has offered up millions of acres across the West for bargain basement leasing — including almost a million here in Utah.

Targeted lands include those near Utah’s recreation hot spots, such as Moab and Arches National Park, Zion National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. Just this month, BLM offered up 32,700 acres in the Uinta Basin, including parcels on or adjacent to the McCoy Flats and Halfway Hollow bike trail networks.

Below-cost leasing encourages speculators to lease lands with low production potential. It prompts oil companies to nominate lands they don’t even intend to develop, simply to confuse the competition. It also makes it easy to nominate (anonymously) land for lease as a way to prevent management for other uses.

This nation’s long-standing principle of multiple-use management is being turned on its head, victim of an administration that subordinates all other natural resource values, including water supplies, outdoor recreation, tourism and wildlife habitat, to oil and gas speculation.

Two bills recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, if enacted, would change things for the better.

The bipartisan Fair Returns for Public Lands Act of 2020 (S.3330), sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Tom Udall, D-N.M., will restore some fiscal sanity to oil and gas activity by bringing leasing fees and royalty rates into the 21st Century. Not only will it provide a fairer return to taxpayers and states, it will help restore much needed balance to federal land management.

Equally important to restoring that balance, is the End Speculative Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2020 (S.3202), introduced by Sen. Cortez Masto, D-Nev. This bill would put an end to the administration’s unprecedented practice of offering vast swaths of public land for lease that have little or no potential to produce oil and gas.

If lawmakers, especially Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, want to safeguard Utah’s natural heritage — the wide-open spaces, scenic views, and recreational opportunities that play a big role in why folks choose to live here — they should wholeheartedly support these vital reforms.

These bills will also help safeguard other economically important industries that depend on our public lands, such as outdoor recreation, which contributes $200 billion more to the national GDP than mining, oil and gas.

Past administrations, include those of conservative leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, fully appreciated America’s lands and waters as a natural endowment, with values not measured in just dollars and cents.

They championed a balanced and genuinely conservative approach, one that embraces the stewardship and multiple use principles that have guided public land management across the West for more than a century.

Theodore Roosevelt once cautioned about America’s lands and waters being hijacked by special interest profiteering. He warned of “short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm,” and “waste the heritage of … unborn generations.”

The people of this, and other Western states, deserve better.

David Jenkins | president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship

Dave Jenkins is the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit grassroots organization.