New data shows the Trump administration has opened up significantly more land to the oil and gas industry than the Obama administration did in its final year, with much of it leased at a very low price. This shift comes despite little apparent change in industry demand since President Donald Trump took office.
In 2018, the federal government made 2.1 million acres of land available for oil and gas leases in the western United States, according to data from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) analyzed by the Center for American Progress (CAP). In 2017, the government offered up 1.6 million acres in these western states, which include Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.
By comparison, the government made 472,000 acres available for oil and gas exploration during Obama’s final year in office — just a quarter of the acreage that Trump opened up last year.
As a result, the amount of land obtained by the oil and gas industry has gone up as well. Industry leased 1.3 million acres in 2018 and 709,000 acres in 2017. In 2016, under the Obama administration, industry leased just 289,000 acres.
However, when looking at the data proportionately — examining the percentage of land leased out of the total land made available — the share of land claimed by industry remained constant from 2016 to 2018, at around two thirds (61%). In 2017, the amount of land leased dipped to just 46% of what was offered. (It’s worth noting that throughout the first half of that year, oil prices were slow to rebound following record lows in 2016.)
This suggests that the Trump administration is actively seeking to open up more land to oil and gas extraction, regardless of whether there is a need or clear interest from industry. As the figures indicate, the amount of land offered to the fossil fuel industry in several western states doesn’t match the scale of demand, is being leased at very low rates, and, in some cases, isn’t even being developed.
Rather, it seems the fossil fuel industry is taking advantage of the vast acreage offered up by a willing government at a discounted price.
“The Trump administration’s actions indicate it views the West as a playground for the oil and gas industry,” said Mary Ellen Kustin, director of policy for CAP’s public lands team. “They’re snapping up more acres for the minimum bid as the administration offers a startling increase in acreage for auction.” (Editor’s Note: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
The data shows that in 2017 and 2018 respectively, 32% and 20% of the land went for the minimum bid: $2.00 per acre. (In 2016, meanwhile, 29% was leased at the minimum bid.) Land goes for the minimum rate when there is one sole bidder for that plot, as opposed to several companies clamoring for the land and thereby raising the bid amounts.
“Parcels come in various shapes and sizes,” Kustin said. “So we know for sure from these BLM data that more acres are bringing in the lowest amount possible in bids as they’re leased to industry.”
The highest proportion of minimum bids accepted was in 2017. This coincided with the huge leap in the number of acres suddenly put up for lease by the new administration coupled with a drop in the percentage actually leased compared to 2016.
“That says to me that BLM offered far too many acres in 2017 — way more than industry could lease,” said Kustin. The following year, however, the industry was better prepared to take advantage of even more land being opened up.
According to the BLM, just under half of the 26 million federal acres under lease to developers in 2018 (not just those in the West) were producing oil and gas “in economic quantities.”
“We know that having extra acreage on the books can benefit oil and gas companies, even when prices are low and it isn’t worth spudding new wells,” said Kustin — noting, however, that “whether industry drills it or just sits on it, leasing additional acres ties up land that would otherwise be managed for publicly beneficial uses like outdoor recreation and conservation.”
In February 2018, industry was officially allowed to start bidding on land previously designated as part of two Utah national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. And as the data analysis shows, Utah had an astounding increase in the number of acres leased for oil and gas extraction.
Internal Interior Department emails, obtained by the New York Times, later revealed that oil and gas drilling was a key incentive for opening up these lands.
According to the data, the amount of land leased by industry in Utah jumped from just over 31,800 acres in 2016 to nearly 69,500 acres in 2017, and then a staggering 336,643 acres in 2018, equivalent to 80% of what was offered last year. In comparison, industry leased about half the amount of land opened up in Utah in 2016 and 2017.
On Thursday, David Bernhardt was officially confirmed as the new secretary of the Interior Department. Bernhardt was first appointed deputy secretary in July 2017, and has played a key role during his time at the agency in the administration’s “energy dominance” agenda which prioritizes fossil fuels over clean energy. This includes the department instituting policy changes that reduced or eliminated opportunities for meaningful public engagement in the oil and gas leasing and permitting process.
In January 2018, for instance, the BLM issued a new rule requiring only 10 days of public comment on proposed lease sales, with environmental reviews made optional. A June 2018 policy took this one step further by encouraging the BLM to avoid environmental review and the associated public participation.
And during the recent partial government shutdown, the department recalled furloughed workers to continue processing oil and gas leases.
Meanwhile, as Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) noted during a recent confirmation hearing for Bernhardt to lead the department, there appears to be a lack of similar dedication to promoting clean energy on public lands.
In an April 10 letter to Bernhardt ahead of his confirmation, several Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about these changes. “We urge you to immediately commit to reverse actions that limit public comment,” they wrote, “and to ensure that all stakeholders have their rightful say in how our shared public lands are used.”