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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Advocacy Groups Ask Federal Government To Stop Leasing Public Land While Demand For Oil Is Low

A photo of a landscape with sagebrush in foreground and canyon formations in background.
Courtesy of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Labyrinth Canyon was part of 80,000 acres removed from a Utah lease sale scheduled for Sept. 2020. The sale will go forward with around 30,000 acres.

Almost 700,000 acres of public land in the Western United States could be leased to energy developers before the end of 2020, including 51,000 acres in Utah.

Wildlife and taxpayer advocacy groups are calling on the federal government to cancel these upcoming auctions, in which developers bid on the ability to lease pieces of public land. They say offering up public land to oil and gas developers right now is costing taxpayers by allowing developers to lock in leases at low rates, pointing to a recent lease sale in New Mexico as evidence.

David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, said leasing Western public lands to energy developers already doesn’t make sense, since there’s more oil elsewhere in the country.

“Once you also factor in the massive amount of lands being offered that have little to no potential for development, the current global oversupply and production, and the reduced demand for oil due to the pandemic, continuing this leasing binge is nothing short of fiscal lunacy,” Jenkins said.

Representatives from Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation made similar arguments, calling on the Bureau of Land Management, which leases public land for energy development, to cancel the sales scheduled for this year.

But the Bureau is bound by a federal law called the Mineral Leasing Act, which requires the agency to offer up public land nominated by energy developers in quarterly lease sales — so long as the land isn’t protected as wilderness or otherwise unavailable.

“It’s not a matter of them going, ‘Oh, oil is down now, so we’re not going to hold a lease sale,’” said Kathleen Sgamma, a spokesperson with oil advocacy group Western Energy Alliance. “That’s not in the law at all.”

Autumn Hanna, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said her group has been calling for reforms to the Mineral Leasing Act, which sets royalty rates for oil and gas production on public lands, since last year.

“We’re losing even more during this COVID pandemic, and it’s even more foolish to continue leasing than before the pandemic hit,” Hanna said.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-UT, introduced legislation last fall to increase the royalty rate and minimum rent for federal oil and gas leases. And Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, introduced similar legislation this spring. While neither bill would allow the BLM to cancel lease sales due to market conditions, McAdams and Udall have said the bills would increase revenue from oil and gas production on public lands.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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