By Jessica Goad
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney today released his energy plan with a speech in New Mexico. One of the most controversial pieces of the plan would give states control over energy development on federal public lands, a policy that would likely allow energy companies more access to them, allow bypassing of federal public health and environmental safeguards, and decrease certainty for companies and the public.
It is an extreme proposal, especially from a candidate who admitted that he did not know the “purpose of” public lands. But an analysis of Romney’s top energy advisers, donors, and the ideas of the American Legislative Exchange Council may shed some light on the origins of this proposal.
A number of advisers and donors close to Romney own oil and coal leases on public lands, showing their business interest in opening these places to development:
– Romney’s top energy advisor is oil baron Harold Hamm, who made his $11 billion fortune developing shale oil in North Dakota. His company, Continental Resources, has permits to drill for oil on public lands, some of which were approved as recently as this month in Montana and North Dakota. Hamm also has given $1 million to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super-PAC.
– Another Romney energy advisor is ex-Senator Jim Talent (R-MO), a lobbyist who has Peabody Energy, one of the nation’s biggest coal producers, amongst his firm’s clients. Peabody and its subsidiaries have coal leases on federal lands in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, and just yesterday paid only $0.25 per ton, or $750,000, for the rights to mine more than 3 million tons of publicly-owned coal.
– Bill Koch, brother to Charles and David Koch, has given at least $2 million to Restore Our Future. A subsidiary of Koch’s company, the Oxbow Corporation, owns and operates the Elk Creek coal mine on public lands in Colorado which is expanding its operations.
Romney’s plan to turn over decisions about energy development on federal lands to the states also recalls similar proposals promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing corporate front group that designs pro-corporate legislation for state legislators and is funded by the likes of Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Koch Industries.
By way of comparison, this year ALEC endorsed legislation in Utah that would turn 30 million acres of federal public lands to the state. Documents from alecexposed.org show that as early as 1995, the group had penned the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act,” a model law “designed to establish a mechanism for the transfer of ownership of unappropriated lands from the federal government to the states.”
Additionally, ALEC has frequently touted the superiority of state regulations over those of the federal government. For instance, it developed a model bill that would prevent states from complying with federal safeguards unless they are consistent with state law. As the Center for Media and Democracy put it, this bill is “largely at odds with Supreme Court jurisprudence.”
The desire for more access to public lands for drilling is nothing new for the oil and gas industry, which has been relentless it its push for opening more acres to oil and gas production. This is despite the fact that drilling is alive and well on public lands — indeed, the Bureau of Land Management held three of its five biggest oil and gas lease sales in the agency’s history in 2011.
The idea of turning public lands that belong to all American over to the states was too extreme even for conservative Republican and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who said upon her veto of a bill mandating this that she is “… concerned about the lack of certainty this legislation could create for individuals holding existing leases on federal lands. Given the difficult economic times, I do not believe this is the time to add to that uncertainty.”
Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.