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KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Public Lands Go For $2 An Acre At Auction. And Sometimes Even Less.

Photo of oil pump.
iStock.com / DennyThurstonPhotography
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Environmental groups are sounding the alarm about a process they say cheats taxpayers and favors the oil and gas industry. The Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities say Congress needs to pass legislation to reform the Bureau of Land Management’s oil and gas leasing program.

utah_oil_and_gas_leases_.png
Credit The Wilderness Society/Center for Western Priorities
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The current leasing process, established by Congress in 1987, allows energy developers to nominate parcels of land for lease, which then go to auction starting at $2 an acre. If the parcel receives no bids, it can be leased for $1.50 an acre. 

The groups say Congress should raise the rental rates and royalty rates for public land currently under lease in the United States. Legislation filed last week by Utah Democratic Representative Ben McAdams would bring the minimum bid per acre up to $5 and require that it be adjusted for inflation. It would also raise rates for onshore drilling.

“After decades of inaction by the BLM, this measure brings royalty and rental rates in line with what states such as Utah are charging, ensuring the public receives a fair return in exchange for allowing commercial companies to drill,” McAdams said in a press release

The Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities are also calling on the BLM to stop leasing land that has low development potential. A report and set of interactive maps released by the groups shows that, out of 17.7 million acres of federal land that is currently under lease by oil and gas developers, more than 30% sold for less than $2 an acre, and almost 50% has not been developed. 

“Millions of acres of land are essentially just sitting there,” said Kim Stevens with The Wilderness Society. “And, when lands are idle, it means that the Bureau of Land Management can’t manage those lands for other important uses.”

Map showing acres of national public lands leased by the oil and gas industry.
Credit The Wilderness Society/Center for Western Priorities
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As of August 2019, the oil and gas industry is leasing 17.7 million acres of national public lands in the West, according to a report by the Center for Western Priorities and The Wilderness Society. The leases are represented by yellow dots in this map, which was featured in the report.

While the lands are still accessible by the public, they can’t be included in management plans that protect animal habitats or artifacts, or allow for recreational development, so long as they are under lease. 

In Utah, 2,246,233 acres are currently leased to oil and gas developers, which includes culturally sensitive land in San Juan County, in addition to sage grouse habitat in the Uintah Basin. Of that land, 59% is sitting idle. 

“What is clear is that rampant oil and gas leasing is threatening wild places and wildlife across the West,” Stevens said.

Under the Trump administration, the BLM is pursuing an “Energy Dominance” agenda, meant to increase domestic production of crude oil. Stevens said this has resulted in the removal of regulations meant to safeguard the environment, which has in turn opened up more public land to drilling. 

A chart showing the percentage of leases sold for $2.00 per acre or less in western states.
Credit The Wilderness Society/Center for Western Priorities
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Leases sold for $2.00 per acre or less make up 32% of all lands currently under lease for oil and gas development, according to a report by the Center for Western Priorities and The Wilderness Society.

While the President has some discretion over the BLM’s leasing program, Congress has more control, according to Robert Keiter, a law professor and director of the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center.

“Congress has final say over what happens on public lands,” he said. “They could speed up the oil and gas leasing process or they could put the brakes on it, with additional constraints in the leasing process itself or additional environmental analysis requirements.”

A chart showing how many acres currently under lease for oil and gas development are sitting idle.
Credit The Wilderness Society/Center for Western Priorities
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Nearly half of all acres currently under lease for oil and gas development are sitting idle, according to a report by the Center for Western Priorities and The Wilderness Society.

Little about the leasing process has changed in the last three decades, according to Keiter, while the oil and gas industry has become more advanced through the development of better technology for oil and gas detection and horizontal drilling.

“It’s made industry interested in areas that it wasn’t previously interested in,” he said. 

KUER reached out to the BLM’s Utah office. Their representative was not available for comment in time for publication.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.

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