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'Gross Mismanagement' of Public Lands: Trump Administration Urged to Cancel Planned Sales for Oil and Gas Drilling

Environmentalists have decried the administration's attempts to expand drilling and fracking as "breathtakingly vicious." 

Oil pumps in operation near Arnegard, North Dakota. (Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr/cc)

Two oil pumps at work near Arnegard, North Dakota. (Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr/cc) 

Environmental and taxpayer groups on Tuesday urged the Trump administration to cancel plans to sell oil and natural gas leases on over 300,000 acres of public lands this month. 

Reuters reports the pleas came on the same day that a Nevada auction drew little interest from a weakening drilling industry, with participants making mostly minimum bids. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered 11 parcels totaling 15,445 acres (6,880 hectares) in Eureka, Nye, and Landers counties at Tuesday's auction. Only seven of the parcels sold, for the minimum bid of $2 per acre. The auction raised a paltry $63,000.

The relatively small Nevada auction was the first of six that BLM plans to hold this month following a five-month pause in sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. The online auction site EnergyNet lists upcoming BLM drilling sales in Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. 

"This leasing binge is nothing short of fiscal lunacy and gross mismanagement of our nation's public lands." 
—David Jenkins, CRS

Critics argue that such auction leases probably won't generate fair returns for taxpayers, since the oil and natural gas industry is reeling from dramatically lower prices and demand.

"Continuing this leasing binge is nothing short of fiscal lunacy and it represents a gross mismanagement of our nation's public lands," David Jenkins, president of the conservation group Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship (CRS), told reporters during a conference call. 

CRS, the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the National Wildlife Federation are urging Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to cancel the upcoming sales, which follow a similar auction in New Mexico last month that drew tepid bidding. 

On Tuesday, oil prices plummeted to their lowest levels in more than a month amid concerns about demand and the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The cocktail of more Covid-19 infections and an expected decline in road fuel demand in the U.S. is strong enough to put...prices to sleep for a while until the hangover is over," oil market analyst Paola Rodriguez-Masui told Oilprice.com Tuesday.

The Trump administration has made drilling on public lands a key component of what it calls its "America First" energy agenda. This includes plans to open public waters, national forests, and other protected public areas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), to fossil fuel exploration and drilling. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has repeatedly said he opposes drilling on public lands. 

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"No more subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, no more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period," Biden said earlier this year. 

"No new fracking," added Biden—who was widely criticized by environmentalists and progressives last month after he said he would not ban all fracking.

Environmental groups have strongly condemned Trump's plans to drill on public lands. 

Frank Szollosi, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, responded to the Trump administration's plan for increased drilling in national forests by calling it "an affront to hunters and anglers, as well as the world class outdoor recreation values we share in Montana." 

"While we should be working to improve our national forests for fish and wildlife, the Trump administration continues to prioritize special interests, wants to reduce public participation in the leasing process, and open more precious public land to oil and gas development," Szollosi told the Missoula Current

Late last month, the administration also announced plans to hold an oil and gas auction of public land in California by the end of the year. If approved, it would be the first such auction in the state since 2012. Environmentalists have vowed to fight any such sales. 

"More oil wells mean more greenhouse gases, more air pollution, and more destroyed habitat," Clare Lakewood, a lawyer from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, told the Bakersfield Californian at the time. "Selling this public land to oil companies will do significant harm to our environment, despite the administration's ridiculous claims."

"We've blocked any new federal leasing in California in court for eight years now, and we'll fight this too," added Lakewood. 

The August announcement came four months after the Trump administration released a plan (pdf) to open over one million acres (405,000 hectares) of public and private land in California to oil drilling and fracking. 

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