It’s been nearly two weeks since a band of armed occupiers took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, thrusting the Bureau of Land Management—the other BLM—into the news. Ostensibly Ammon Bundy and his compatriots are protesting what they consider an unjust punishment to a father-son pair of local ranchers for arson, but at issue for Bundy and those with him is the belief that the government has far overreached in its control of public lands, and that these lands, specifically the refuge, should be given over to states and private landholders.
While it has been pointed out numerous times that the states are the entities that originally requested the federal oversight of the land—after it was initially seized from Native Americans—Bundy and his supporters continue to push their agenda. The occupiers have said they will travel to the nearby town of Burns on Friday “to explain to the community why we are here and when we will be leaving”—the details of which have so far been vague. This isn’t the first run-in with the BLM for a Bundy. Ammon Bundy, who is 40 and lives in Arizona, is the son of the infamous Cliven Bundy, a cattle rancher who in 2014 engaged in a Nevada standoff with BLM workers over his more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees.
As the Oregon occupation grows in significance and symbolism, BLM has been forced to refocus its attention away from the bureau’s primary occupation of managing public lands. The federal agency oversees around 245 million acres of public land, or around one-eighth of the landmass of the contiguous United States, all of which is located west of the Mississippi River.
The Coming Energy Occupation of Federal Lands
Many of these lands are rich in fossil fuels and renewable energy resources, and the development of both remains uncertain as the quest for energy moves further and further into federal lands. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama said his administration will “push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources” in 2016. Long-awaited new rules regarding coal and oil leasing on federal land as well as a final methane flaring and venting rule could be released by the end of January. On Friday, the Obama administration announced it was halting coal leasing on federal lands while it considers overhauling the program.
Right now BLM lands are home to more than 63,000 oil and gas wells, accounting for some 11% of the country’s natural gas supply and 5% of the oil supply. The money from these leases, some $5.4 billion in 2013, is divided between the federal government, states, and Native American groups. In total, the Obama administration has approved around 15 million acres of public land for drilling since 2009 as part of its “all of the above” energy plan.
While this might seem like a lot of activity, there are people in favor of drilling more, arguing that state or private oversight of the lands would better balance energy, mining, grazing, and conservation interests. Generally far-right, small government conservatives, these people see the government as being inefficient in nearly every task it undertakes, and of being especially overzealous when it comes to environmental regulation. However, it has been shown that cattle ranchers on federal lands are actually receiving a massive government subsidy for their use of the land, and that the issues ranchers in the West face run much deeper than the arguments Bundy and his fellow occupiers peddle.
Western states enjoy great benefits from federal lands in their states.
When asked how BLM deals with those who want to sell off federal land, a spokesperson responded over email that BLM looks “forward to working collectively with Western states, the public and other stakeholders on the thoughtful management of the public lands.”
The spokesperson went on to point out the “great benefits” that Western states enjoy on their federal lands, such as “mineral royalties, recreational pursuits such as hunting and fishing, tourism, job creation, and other contributions to quality of life.”
The efforts to free up federal land, including some by those in Congress, have mostly been symbolic so far, and would likely meet with a veto from Obama were they to make it that far. However they provide a useful talking point for Republicans trying to cater to the far-right base of their party.
Whether drilling on these near-pristine lands is appropriate or not is something BLM will be forced to consider more closely in the future. The bureau is receiving strong resistance to drilling from environmentalists and the “Keep it in the Ground” movement, both of which are concerned about the role fossil fuels play in climate change.
The bureau is also increasingly taking on renewable energy projects.
Since 2010, BLM has approved around 40 utility scale solar projects. In 2015 alone, BLM approved five solar energy projects that will bring an additional 977 megawatts of power online once they are built, comparable to two average coal-fired power plants. The bureau estimates that it oversees more than 19 million acres of land with great solar energy potential, several million more acres than have been leased for oil and gas development since Obama took office.
As for wind energy, BLM estimates that 20.6 million acres of public lands in 11 Western states have wind energy potential—much of which has barely been tapped, as fewer than 1,000 megawatts of the 70,000 megawatts of wind power in the United States are currently generated on BLM lands. Combined with the 12 geothermal utility scale projects, BLM renewable projects are producing some 15,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power five million homes.
A big part of utilizing BLM’s renewable energy resources is building the transmission lines necessary to access them, and in 2015 the bureau approved six transmission projects to help unlock these resources.
Public Land in the Public Interest
According to Marissa Knodel with the climate and energy team at Friends of the Earth, a justice-minded environmental group, it’s becoming increasingly clear that more drilling, fracking, and polluting on public lands is not in the public interest.
BLM’s primary mandate is to manage our public lands in our best interest, like our trustee.
“BLM’s primary mandate is to manage our public lands in our best interest, like our trustee,” Knodel told me. “For a long time that’s included both preservation and conservation as well as fossil fuel development…BLM has started to realize the time has come for reform.”
Knodel said BLM has a “huge role to play” in stopping leases that will lock the United States into both a future dependent upon fossil fuel infrastructure, such as pipelines, as well as preventing further increases in greenhouse gas emissions. These are both key aspects in mitigating climate change as burning all the fossil fuels already leased worldwide would emit enough emissions into the atmosphere to raise temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius—the point at which the impacts of climate change will become catastrophic, according to scientists.
The climate action group 350.org has done the math: In order to stay below 2 degrees warming, we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide over the foreseeable future. If corporations burned all the fossil fuels currently in their reserves, it would release 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide, five times that amount.
When asked if BLM currently takes greenhouse gas emissions into consideration when evaluating a project, the spokesperson replied that this was one of many “resource values” that BLM evaluates as part of their analyses. Another is the obligation to permit oil and gas development.
“We have statutory obligations with respect to oil and gas development, which require us to provide opportunities for those resources to be developed in a reasonable and responsible manner,” the spokesperson stated.
BLM recently approved a resource management plan for an area in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin that would authorize the production of 10.2 billion tons of coal if the lands are leased. Greenpeace has calculated that burning all this coal would produce nearly 17 billion tons of carbon pollution. The United States burns around 900 million tons of coal annually, with some 40% of that already coming from the Powder River Basin, mostly on BLM public lands.
More than half of the world’s 890 billion tons of current coal reserves must stay underground if countries are to meet the environmental agreements they made at the recent Paris climate summit, according to a recent Bank of America Corp. report. Ten billion tons of coal-burning starts to look pretty significant when the world has less than 450 billion tons left to burn—an amount that could be used up in around three decades. Based on these numbers, it does not appear that greenhouse gas emissions have been adequately accounted for in BLM’s environmental review.
BLM is also starting to look at the royalties companies pay when they extract fossil fuels from public lands, an amount that hasn’t been updated from 12.5% since the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. Among one of the lowest onshore royalty rates in the world, some top democrats in Congress have requested it be raised to 18.75%. This would put it on par with the charge for production from offshore leases and curtail a leasing process that is “excessively generous to oil and gas companies,” according to U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA).
When it comes to coal mining on public lands, a 2012 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis determined that the federal government has left as much as $28.9 billion in revenue on the table over the last 30 years by getting below-market value for its coal. With coal prices currently at rock bottom rates, and several major coal companies declaring bankruptcy, this type of BLM deal could prove even more of a lifeline to coal companies in the future.
BLM is also considering updating the severity of civil penalties that companies can face for regulatory violations, as well as updating financial assurances to make sure drilled sites will be properly reclaimed even if a fossil fuel company goes bankrupt.
This would all be part of the Obama administration’s 2016 efforts to change how the U.S. manages energy resources.
The Other Protests: Civil Disobedience in Defiance of Drilling
Prior to the Bundy-orchestrated BLM standoffs, the biggest BLM protest in recent memory was one against oil and gas drilling on public lands. However, rather than being an armed confrontation, this 2008 incident took the form of civil disobedience.
During what was supposed to be a standard auction of oil and gas drilling rights in Utah, then-unknown climate activist Tim DeChristopher entered the auction and started winning bids to drilling rights on more than 150,000 acres of publicly owned Utah wilderness. After winning more than a dozen leases worth more than $2 million—leases he never planned to pay for—DeChristopher was eventually sentenced to two years in federal prison for criminal fraud. DeChristopher recently told Democracy Now that while he was punished for “acts of civil disobedience, which were entirely nonviolent…the Bundy clan, even almost two years now after pointing their weapons at federal agents, have had no consequences.”
While DeChristopher may have initially acted on his own, the attention his protest garnered helped catalyze the anti-drilling movement into the powerful force it has become today—The latest and greatest victory in the movement being Obama’s rejection of the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline in early November that would have transported greenhouse gas-intensive oil from tar sands from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
We may not all agree precisely on how to strike the right balance between conservation and development, but anyone who tells us we should hand our American lands over to private owners and to the states are telling us a story that will not stand the test of time.
As for the Bundys role in all this, it’s not just environmentalists that their aggressive nature doesn’t jive with. One new poll from Colorado College found that nearly 60% of Western voters don’t want states to take over management of public lands.
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also recently said that hardcore activists like the Bundys don’t represent the views of many living in the West.
“The Bundys and those who sympathize with them are far out of touch with most folks living in the West,” he said.
“What Westerners are actually concerned about is drought and water scarcity, our dependence on foreign oil, climate change, and the outdoor recreation economy,” he said. “We may not all agree precisely on how to strike the right balance between conservation and development, but anyone who tells us we should hand our American lands over to private owners and to the states are telling us a story that will not stand the test of time.”