Policy Update Mar 17, 2020

Threats to America's National Parks from Oil and Gas and What Congress Can Do About It

NPCA released the following report that details the numerous threats that our park lands face from oil and & gas development and further outlines the various federal protections that can be established to ensure these public lands can be enjoyed for generations to come. 

Threats to America’s National Parks from Oil and Gas and What Congress Can Do About It


The Problem: Harm to Parks and Adjacent Public Lands and More Pollution

America’s national parks are facing unparalleled threats. From climate change to underfunding to overcrowding, some of our nation’s most cherished landscapes are facing pressures from multiple fronts. Under this administration, rampant oil and gas leasing has become an increasingly serious challenge.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has offered more than 24 million acres of public land for oiland gas leasing, an area larger than the state of Indiana. This administration’s unrelenting focus on leasing across a significant portion of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has set the stage to fundamentally alter America’s western landscape, leading to development and industrialization on the doorsteps of our national parks. National parks are ecologically connected to their larger surrounding landscapes. What happens on the lands adjacent to parks often matters just as much as what happens inside park boundaries. The rapid pace of leasing on those adjacent lands is leading to habitat fragmentation, intrusions of noise and light, air and water pollution and a deepening of our country’s climate crisis.

The breakneck pace of leasing is all happening while industry already has more than enough land to develop. According to the BLM, of the 24 million acres of public land currently leased by the oil and gas industry almost 6.5 million of those acres currently lie idle and undeveloped. Acres continue to be put up for sale with little to no potential for resource development. The administration is offering this land regardless of impacts to surrounding landscapes, often at only $2 an acre. Hundreds of thousands of acres are being offered at sales in states across the West every three months. When parcels don’t sell on the competitive market, the leases are allowed bought on the open market for an even cheaper price. Once leased, these lands are closed to the public for at least a decade, often much longer, preventing other uses such as conservation and recreation.

Energy Dominance and Instructional Memorandum 2018-034

In March 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that introduced the new administration’s policy of so-called “energy dominance.” The administration ordered agencies to review all existing regulations and policies that would “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy resources.”

As a direct result of that order, the Department of the Interior, then under Secretary Ryan Zinke, issued Instructional Memorandum 2018-034 in early 2018. The memorandum identified and eliminated policies that protected communities and wildlife from the impacts of nearby oil and gas development, and it discouraged public participation in decision-making around lease sales. This single action pointed the BLM’s oil and gas leasing program in a whole new direction, one that was focused on leasing as much as possible no matter the cost. Since then, we have seen industry nominate and lease parcels close to national parks with far less oversight, accountability and public input. Among other things, the memorandum mandated the following policy changes:

  • Each state BLM office is now required to hold quarterly statewide lease sales, a two-to-threefold increase over past leasing;

  • State offices now have broad discretion to decide whether and when to allow public input;

  • Many parcels no longer have to go through site-specific environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act;

  • The period of time that the public can protest a lease sale has been cut from 30 days to 10 days, severely limiting the public’s ability to weigh in on the harm to neighboring communities, public health and national parks;

  • The posting of the final sale notice prior to an oil and gas lease is shortened from 90 days to 45 days;

  • Landscape-level planning processes called Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) were scrapped. These collaborative processes brought together diverse stakeholders from industry, local communities, tribes and federal agencies to identify areas not appropriate for oil and gas development.

Concerned citizens and groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) are now left with few opportunities to engage with the federal land management agencies and industry to keep oil and gas development away from national parks. Under current practices, companies anonymously nominate any parcels they would like to develop, and the BLM spends taxpayer resources to offer the vast majority of those lands for sale every three months. Once announced, stakeholders like NPCA have a short window to comment, making it difficult to identify parcels that could have negative impact on national parks. Once such conflicts are identified, one of the few options is to request a temporary deferral of the most egregious parcels, and those requests are frequently denied.

With fewer opportunities for public engagement in the leasing process, stakeholders have turned to courts and Congress to battle excessive oil and gas development on public lands.

Potential Policy Solutions

The answer to protecting national parks from oil and gas development is simple: avoid leases that will harm parks. Because this administration refuses to so, we need Congress to advance policy reforms to avoid creating more harm to public lands.

NPCA has identified five reforms that would make significant strides toward protecting parks and their surrounding landscapes.

1. Reinstate Master Leasing Plans

The BLM established master leasing plans in 2010 as a planning tool for large landscapes. These plans created a robust stakeholder process around heavily contested public lands with areas of high conflict between multiple uses to develop consensus among stakeholders in advance of any lease sales. Under this process, the BLM brought relevant parties to the table, including the oil and gas industry, to determine which public lands were most appropriate for oil and gas development and where it would be more appropriate to set aside land for conservation, recreation, wildlife habitat or other non-extractive uses. The bureau initiated these processes on lands that were adjacent to parks or monuments, hosted high concentrations of cultural resources, or were popular for recreational activities such as biking, hunting and fishing.

Only two such plans were ever finalized before the current administration ended the creation of new master leasing plans. As a result, managers of multiple landscapes and people in nearby communities were thrown into uncertainty over whether companies would be allowed to develop the public land in question.

2. Bring the Public Back into Public Land Management

The public’s right to engage in BLM’s management of federal public lands is enshrined in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Specifically, Title III, Section 309 of that statute lays out the opportunity for public participation through advisory councils to serve various citizen interests in the management of public land. This intent was to have the agency actively engage the public and stakeholders in land management decisions.

The statute offers broad discretion on how to best engage the public. However, this administration has adopted a very rigid interpretation of the 1976 guidance, resulting in uncertainty for both the industry and the general public.

For example, under the previous administration, BLM field offices provided a 30-day public review and comment period for environmental assessments before forwarding leasing recommendations to state directors. Additionally, if there was a “determination of NEPA adequacy,” meaning no further environmental review was necessary under the National Environmental Policy Act, field offices still provided a 30-day public review and comment period to respond. Both of these requirements have been eliminated under this administration.

Additional changes under the current administration include shortening the amount of time for posting public notice of a competitive lease sale from 90 days before the sale to 45 days, as well as shortening the protest period for a lease sale from 30 days to 10 days. Reinstating longer windows for notice, sale and comment would better ensure the public can weigh in on lease sales and can help identify potential conflicts with other uses earlier in the process.

3. Increase Lease Sale Transparency

Under the current federal oil and gas leasing process, a company or anyone with access to a computer can anonymously nominate a parcel of land to be put up for an oil and gas lease. When local communities and the public become aware of leases near national parks, there is often strong pushback regarding potential park impacts. For that reason, it is in the interest of some in the industry to remain anonymous to avoid political blowback for their parcel nominations. Increasing the transparency around lease sales would improve the dynamics between industry and local communities, avoid taxpayer expenses by reducing the number of high-conflict areas, and provide a more even playing field for all stakeholders in the leasing process. Gateway communities and the public are eager to know how their public lands are being managed, and stakeholders on both sides of the issue deserve to know who is nominating leases near some of our most sensitive and special landscapes.

4. Update Fiscal Policies

American taxpayers should receive a fair market value from resources developed from publicly owned lands. This includes revenue derived from royalty rates, rental rates, minimum bids and non-competitive leasing. However, federal fiscal policies for the oil and gas program haven’t been updated in decades and lag significantly behind federal offshore drilling rates, as well as state onshore drilling rates. This leaves hundreds of millions of dollars on the table every year, money that could be directed to the federal treasury to support deficit reduction or the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog, among other needs.

Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that if federal royalty rates were raised only enough to be on par with offshore rates (from the current 12.5 percent to 18.75 percent), it would generate an over $400 million increase for federal taxpayers. When the Park Service alone has a maintenance backlog of over $11.9 billion, it is not reasonable to leave federal money on the table, funds that could be put directly back into important conservation projects.

5. End Speculative Leasing

BLM is required to allow multiple uses on its lands, but this administration has consistently prioritized oil and gas development over all other uses. This has encouraged industry to nominate parcels simply for speculative purposes, to appeal to investors based on how many acres they have, regardless of the economic feasibility of extracting oil or gas from those lands. This practice results in a system where the land offered for lease is rarely based on actual development potential. Once these lands are sold, even if they are not developed for oil and gas, they are essentially unavailable for other uses, such as conservation, recreation or wildlife habitat, for at least a 10-year lease term, often much longer. It would be a smarter approach for all involved for the BLM to assess development potential of public lands to determine whether energy development is the most appropriate use. This would also make it easier to ramp down drilling and promote other forms of less-polluting energy sources.

Congressional Opportunities

In response to rampant, speculative and problematic leasing, Congress is taking steps to reform the oil and gas leasing program. Fortunately, there are multiple pieces of legislation that would facilitate much needed reforms.

House of Representatives

NPCA strongly supports three bills awaiting passage through committee in the House.

  • H.R. 3225, the Restoring Community Input and Public Protections in Oil and Gas Leasing Act sponsored by Representative Mark Levin (D-CA-49) would reinstate master leasing plans, ensure Americans receive fair market value for use of public lands, restore public participation while increasing transparency, protect landowners, and ensure lands are managed for multiple uses

  • H.R. 4364, the Taxpayer Fairness for Resource Development Act sponsored by Reps. Ben McAdams (D-UT-4) and Francis Rooney (R-FL-19), would update the onshore royalty rate, minimum bids and rental rates, ensuring that taxpayers receive their fair share for extractive uses on public lands

  • H.R. 5636, the Transparency in Energy Production Act sponsored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA- 47) would protect landowners and force industry to both quantify and disclose to the public a detailed accounting of emissions from infrastructure and development

Senate

NPCA strongly supports two pieces of legislation in the Senate.

  • S. 3202, the End Speculative Oil and Gas Leasing Act sponsored by Senator Cortez Masto would require the BLM to assess the mineral development potential for any lands prior to offering them for lease. The law would prohibit the BLM from leasing any land with little to no development potential. This bill takes an important step toward a future where oil and gas drilling doesn’t dominate every possible landscape.

  • S. 3330, the Fair Returns for Public Lands Act sponsored by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) would modernize public lands leasing policy by increasing rental rates and the amount of royalties returned to the U.S. taxpayer from oil and gas extraction.

Conclusion

Now is the time to act. The BLM’s oil and gas leasing program is broken and in need of fixing. This broken system, coupled with the current administration’s rush to develop oil and gas at all costs, is creating an existential crisis for America’s national parks and public lands. We encourage Congress to take a hard look and consider the reform bills outlined in this paper. If passed, this package of bills would make significant strides toward ensuring that any oil and gas leasing reduces harm to parks, conserves more public lands, and it will eventually lead to less fossil fuel development and pollution.