Jamie Henn: Big Oil shouldn’t profit off public lands during the coronavirus

(Photo Courtesy Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) The oil and gas industry has asked the BLM to sell oil and gas leases on at least 100,000 acres of scenic public land near Canyonlands and Arches national parks, including parts of Hatch Canyon.

Last month, when the coronavirus still felt like a storm on the horizon, rather than a hurricane on our doorstep, my wife and I planned a trip down to the wilderness around Moab. Red rocks and open spaces seemed like the perfect antidote to an increasing sense of claustrophobia brought on by the impending threat of COVID-19.

By the time the weekend came around, however, doctors at Moab Regional Hospital had begged tourists to stay away, and the Southeast Utah Health Department had shut down camping on public lands to those living outside Grand County. It was the right call and we gladly canceled our plans. The red rock wilderness would still be there after the pandemic subsided.

Or will it? Sitting at home after another week of quarantine, I read in the Salt Lake Tribune about the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to lease over 100,000 acres around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to oil and gas drilling. It seems that while our public lands are off-limits to the public, they’re still open for business for Big Oil.

The proposed sale here in Utah fits a wider pattern of the fossil fuel industry attempting to profit off of the confusion caused by the coronavirus. While the rest of us have been doing what we can to practice social distancing, look out for our neighbors, and support healthcare workers, fossil fuel companies have been looking to line their pockets at our expense.

Last Thursday, the day before seven oil company CEOs were scheduled to meet (in person) with President Trump at the White House, I started listing on Twitter different ways that oil, gas and coal companies have been taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. The thread quickly grew to over 25 different examples. Here are just four:

  • The National Mining Association lobbied to get out of paying into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that provides healthcare for 20,000 sick coal miners.

  • The American Petroleum Institute got the Environmental Protection Agency to stop enforcing environmental and public health protections indefinitely.

  • Fossil fuel companies are continuing pipeline construction even though it could spread the coronavirus, threatening the health and safety of workers and communities, especially Native communities who are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

  • The Trump Administration, Big Oil, and the auto industry are rolling back CAFE standards, the fuel efficiency rules that prevent pollution and save lives

The twitter thread quickly turned into a website you can visit at NoBigOilBailout.com.

It’s true: the drilling outside Canyonlands and Arches isn’t likely to start during the coronavirus outbreak. Letting the lease sale take place while the public is distracted with the outbreak, however, is bad enough. The Trump Administration has already restricted public comment on oil and gas leases by moving sales online. Now, they’re attempting to pull off a fire sale while the coronavirus is burning down the world around us.

Utah doesn’t have to go down this road. The coronavirus has turned off the economy as we know it. Before we turn it back on, let’s take back the steering wheel from the oil and gas companies and politicians who serve them, and put control back in public hands. Let’s make sure that as we face the coronavirus hurricane in front of us, we don’t ignore the storms of climate change up ahead. Let’s create an economic future for our state based on clean, renewable energy, not dirty, polluting fossil fuels. And together, let’s ensure that our red rock wilderness is there to provide solace — and healing — for generations to come.

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn is a resident of Salt Lake City, co-founder of 350.org, a board member of O2 Utah and director of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media lab supporting the movement to end fossil fuel production.