How To Protect America’s Public Lands During The Energy Boom


Mount Rainier National Park, source:  National Geographic

Mount Rainier National Park, source: National Geographic

By all measures, America is in the midst of a fossil fuel blitz. Our oil imports are at the lowest levels since 1991, U.S. oil production is at its highest since 1992, and tens of millions of acres of public lands are currently under lease to oil and gas companies for drilling.

But serious questions remain as to how this rapid expansion of drilling can be reconciled with its impacts on air and water quality, the climate, communities near drilling projects, and families who want more opportunities to hike, fish, and hunt on public lands — not more drilling.

The scale and pace of the drilling boom has outpaced the Obama administration’s efforts to preserve a balance between land conservation and drilling. In fact, since 2009, the administration has leased a total of 6.8 million acres of public lands to oil and gas companies while only 2.8 million of them have been protected as parks, monuments, and other areas. (For its part, Congress has been no help; the last Congress was the first since World War II to not protect a single new acre of public lands as wilderness, national park, or national monument).

A new report released on Wednesday by the Equal Ground coalition (which includes the Center for American Progress), presents some new ideas to help right the balance energy development over conservation on public lands. Here’s a video that describes some of those ideas:

The report, called “A Blueprint for Balance: Protecting America’s Public Lands for Future Generations Amid the Energy Boom,” provides ideas for how President Obama, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack can better balance the energy boom with conservation. These include protecting special places, actually considering the value of America’s $646 billion recreation economy when making land-management decisions, and increasing the royalty rate on oil and gas drilled on public lands (which at 12.5 percent is lower than many states).

Recent public opinion research shows that voters in the West — where most public lands are located — strongly prefer protecting public lands over drilling them. In fact, when it comes to land management, 65 percent of voters said protecting public lands for future generations is a very important priority while 63 percent said the same about preserving access to recreation opportunities. Only 30 percent had a similar take on making sure that oil and gas resources on public lands are available for development.

As John Podesta, Chairman of the Center for American Progress put it: “Americans expect and deserve a more balanced approach to the management of their public lands. It is incumbent on the Obama administration to deliver that.”