New scheme offers "freedom" for states to drill on public lands with less oversight

Pump jacks in Wyoming.

Credit: BLM Wyoming, flickr.

Next phase of public land sellout would let states drill to their heart's content on nationally managed lands.

Fresh off a late-summer "recess" period, Congress is considering making it easier for oil and gas companies to get their hands on public lands like national forests.  

The laughably named "Federal Land Freedom Act," recently discussed in the House Energy & Mineral Resources subcommittee, would give states control of leasing, permitting and regulation for oil and gas development on many national public lands. At the same time, it would lock the public out of decisions made about how these places are managed, blocking protections provided by the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock laws. 

If enacted, this would help clear the way for fossil fuel interests to exploit what are supposed to be places conserved for and shared by all Americans. 

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management oversees energy production on national public lands. Part of the mandate for federal agencies is to preserve opportunities for "multiple uses" of public lands, including outdoor recreation and habitat conservation. The bill would undermine that role, privileging energy production above other uses while leaving it in the hands of states, which are not as well-equipped as the federal government to regulate it effectively or guard against environmental disaster. 

History shows dangers of revenue-centric state-run land policy 

History has demonstrated that when states control public lands, they tend do so with the single-minded aim of maximizing revenue. A 2016 Wilderness Society report showed that Idaho has sold off about 1.7 million acres of state-controlled land for development; in many cases, those sales cut off cherished outdoor recreation spots. Earlier this year, another report found that since statehood, Utah has liquidated more than 54 percent of the land originally granted to it, including major archaeological sites and wildlife habitat.  

Utah has liquidated more than 54 percent of the acreage originally granted to it, an indication of the extent to which revenue takes priority when states control land. Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).

This gives us a sense of what might happen if short term-minded state governments take the wheel on energy development. In short, an emphasis on the boom-and-bust fortunes of the oil, gas and coal industries, potentially at the expense of access to the places where people love to hike, hunt and camp. That would also mean that these states forfeit a slice of the robust tourism and outdoor recreation economy. 

Larger land sell-out offensive rolls on 

House and Senate versions of the legislation were introduced by Rep. Diane Black (TN) and Sen. James Inhofe (OK), the former a member of the Federal Land Action Group, or "FLAG," which is dedicated to exploring opportunities to give away American lands to states.  

Indeed, the Federal Land Freedom Act is the latest push in a broader anti-public lands movement that has exploded into prominence in the last few years at the state, congressional and administrative levels. 

This includes agency efforts to give Big Oil the upper hand in public land management; numerous legislative attempts to claw public lands away from the American people at-large, including a bill from Sen. Jeff Flake that directs the sale of 118,000 acres in Arizona; and perhaps most notably, the Trump administration's capricious "review" of Bears Ears National Monument and other national monument lands. 

We are dug in for an intense fight to repel these attacks and keep public lands in public lands. Stay tuned for more on this legislation and other similar efforts.