Time to reform and repair

A new enviro hero shines spotlight on oil and gas mess


The Bush administration's most enduring mark on the American West may well be the tens of millions of acres of public lands it has handed over to the oil and gas industry -- and the belated backlash the giveaway has spawned.

As if to punctuate this legacy, the Bureau of Land Management -- which oversees mineral rights on public lands -- held its most contentious gas lease sale Dec. 19, making available some 150,000 acres of Utah's magnificent redrock canyon country near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

In the weeks before the sale, the BLM fielded protests from conservation groups, the National Park Service and even Robert Redford. The agency eventually pulled some parcels, but as it has since 2002, when the White House ordered the BLM to push gas drilling as its highest priority, the agency proceeded with a controversial sale.

This time, however, a monkey wrench gummed up the works. Posing as a legitimate industry bidder, 27-year-old University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher bid nearly $1.8 million for 13 lease parcels totaling 22,000 acres. He also managed to drive up other bids by about $500,000, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The BLM, which escorted DeChristopher out of the room once it figured out what was going on, says it may redo the auction. Meanwhile, contributions to DeChristopher have poured in, and now he says he hopes to write a $45,000 check to the BLM to hang on to the leases he won. One of his lawyers, interestingly, is former BLM Director Pat Shea.

DeChristopher, who has become a hero to environmentalists, said he was frustrated over the inability of mainstream groups to slow the leasing frenzy: "I don't ever want to have to look back at 2008, and know that there was still a slight chance that we could have done something to make a difference, and I didn't take that chance."

The media ate up his act of civil disobedience, but largely failed to appreciate the larger context. Over the past seven years, the BLM has leased to industry 17 million acres in the five major oil- and gas-producing states in the Interior West. Stunned conservationists began fighting back in 2005, with administrative protests and lawsuits, but the BLM has rarely listened.

To be fair, the Bush administration is not the first to open the public lands to industry. Ronald Reagan's Interior Department embraced industrialization of the public domain with zeal. Even the Clinton administration, which won praise for a last-minute move that protected parts of the West as national monuments, leased millions of acres to the oil and gas industry with nary a protest -- though that may have been partly because, as John Leshy, the Interior Department's solicitor from 1993 to 2001, put it, "We tried pretty hard to stay out of controversial areas." The Bush administration has not.

Now, the Obama administration has the chance to rebalance the way our public lands are managed. It can order federal land managers to make gas leasing and development just one aspect of their jobs, along with protecting the land, water and wildlife. And it can keep the drill rigs out of special places such as Utah's canyon country, the top of Colorado's Roan Plateau and New Mexico's Otero Mesa.

It can also expand on one improbable Bush accomplishment. Pushed by requirements in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the BLM has created seven pilot reclamation teams in Western field offices. These folks try to monitor and assist the hundreds of companies operating on the public lands to reduce their environmental footprint during production. Once the wells run dry, it's their job to make sure that industry erases its roads, well pads and waste ponds so that the land looks as it did before the drill crews arrived.

The teams are starting to make a difference, but they are sorely outmatched by the size of the problem and by weak regulations that still allow companies to walk away without cleaning up after themselves. The BLM estimates that it has reclaimed just 15 percent of 109,000 oil and gas wells abandoned over the past 50 years. Add the 80,000 active wells the agency manages, plus the additional 126,000 wells it will likely approve in the next decade, and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

Tightening regulations and repairing damaged lands is not as dramatic as disrupting an ill-conceived lease sale. But it is equally important. Let's hope the Obama administration and committed conservationists tackle both sides of the gas boom in 2009.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (plarmer@hcn.org). He publishes High Country News, which has covered the American West for 40 years.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Monkey-Wrenched lease session
William Erven
William Erven
Jan 05, 2009 09:19 PM
What a great idea! How does one contribute to this hero's fund to hang on to his leases? Have environmental organizations considered trying to buy leases with donated money and then not developing them? Maybe it is an idea whose time has come.
check here to donate
peter mccall
peter mccall
Jan 05, 2009 10:41 PM

for articles, links, comments, defense fund
not so sure about that
Jan 06, 2009 04:27 AM
I agree that is a great idea, but I think a few regulations would have to be changed to allow environmentalists to bid on federal oil and gas leases. Does anyone know if there are even any states that currently allow this?
Gas Leases
Ben Bulbous
Ben Bulbous
Jan 06, 2009 07:12 AM
How is purchasing a gas lease considered civil disobedience? Absurd!
Its not just oil and gas- solar too
Jan 06, 2009 09:07 AM
It is good and well (pun intended) to daylight the abuses or millions of acres of the west at the expense of oil and gas development but what about the millions of acres which will be destroyed as the result of “renewable” energy development? I fail to see the difference between some of the oil and gas leases and the millions of acres of solar rights of way that BLM has application for! Both result in habitat loss, fragmentation, etc. Why are the national so-called green groups (Sierra Club, NRDC) so opposed to one while in bed with the other? How ‘bout we make all this moot and just do rooftop solar?
Its not just oil and gas, its solar too.
Jan 06, 2009 12:26 PM
Advances in flexible solar technology using carbon nanotubes will allow solar panels to be incorporated into roofing materials, greatly reducing costs. Vast warehouse roofs, tops of carports even car roofs can be covered with flexible panels to produce renewable power. We should be able to avoid what we see happening at the moment, where solar plants consume large acreages. Traditional PV panels require reinforced roofs where snow loads are a consideration, this will largely be eliminated with flexible solar.
Jan 06, 2009 04:14 PM
Despite the fact that I argued BLM has the right to lease these areas and that I don’t see that they’ve done anything illegal here, I have to say that this is pretty sweet. I thought this was a pretty cool idea and I have often wondered before why more enviros don’t bid on lease parcels. I wonder what the requirements are to bid and/or be granted a lease? This page offers a lot of info on lease sales: http://www.blm.gov/[…]/CO_leasing_information.html.

Under “Lessee Qualifications and Limitations,” it states:
Federal oil and gas leases may be obtained and held by any adult citizen of the United States. No lease may be acquired by a minor, but a lease may be issued to a legal guardian or trustee on behalf of a minor. Associations of citizens and corporations organized under the laws of the United States or of any State also qualify.
Aliens may hold interests in leases only by stock ownership in U.S. corporations holding leases and only if the laws of their country do not deny similar privileges to citizens of the United States. They may not hold a lease interest through units in a publicly traded limited partnership.
 If those are the only requirements, how come Mr. DeChristopher wasn’t a legal participant? If he doesn’t pay, the leases should be pulled. But what if he does pay? What power does the government have to indict Tim? However, fraud certainly could be a problem, because he can’t pay for these leases.
Now, some folks are saying Tim is their hero for standing up to the evil Bush administration’s BLM. Well, that would only apply if BLM is breaking the law by offering these leases, and if they are, they will get nailed in court. If they’re not, then what Tim is protesting is really regular-old oil and gas leasing laws which have been around for decades (since 1920 to be exact--well before Reagan). But maybe legality isn’t a huge distinction to Tim; maybe he doesn’t care whether BLM was justified in offering the parcels for lease or not. There are many examples of people protesting unjust laws. It wasn’t legal for Rosa Parks to sit in the front of the bus, was it? Leasing our federal minerals for development is not some unjust travesty in my view, but heck, if you think it is and you are willing to pay the price for your civil disobedience as Tim is, then by all means, have at it. It will be very interesting to see how this all shakes out.