Where's Interior?

Rounding up the Biden admin's non-news on oil & gas and monuments

I’ve used this photo, of a pumpjack near Hovenweep National Monument, before, but I only just realized that there is a windmill in the background in the dead-center. So, I thought I’d use it again! Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

A few months ago the Land Desk began gearing up to run two big stories: One would announce the restoration--and perhaps expansion--of the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, the other would spotlight the reforms called for in the Biden administration’s review of the federal oil and gas leasing program.

We’re still waiting.

The Interior Department finished the monument review and sent it to Biden’s desk months ago. Shortly thereafter news outlets reported Interior Secretary Deb Haaland had recommended a complete restoration of the pre-Trump-shrinkage boundaries. This spawned spawned mild disappointment among monument advocates, who were hoping that Bears Ears would not only restored to its original 1.3 million acres, but also expanded to include the full 1.9 million acres originally proposed by the Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Months later, the monuments remain at their vastly diminished sizes and are being managed by inadequate plans, even as more and more visitors converge on the monuments and the surrounding public lands. Meanwhile Biden and Haaland have remained mum on the topic, even as tribal nations, environmentalists, and Congress members up the calls for action.

Biden promised action on the monuments shortly after he took office in January as part of his bold new approach to fossil fuels and the climate--an about face from Trump’s energy-dominance stance. He revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline; paused oil and gas leasing on public lands, shocking a number of oil-state Democrats and raising cries of economic devastation from the industry’s boosters; put a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; he pledged to reinstate rolled-back methane emissions rules; and he promised major oil and gas leasing reforms, which would be made public in an early summer report.

In the eight months since, Biden has continued to talk big on climate, but his actions have been baffling to many observers. Keystone’s still dead, but the administration has defended the equally contentious Dakota Access Pipeline. Biden’s holding the line on ANWR drilling, and recently launched a review of the leasing program there, but he also has supported Trump’s approval of the Willow drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope; a judge struck that approval down last month. Biden’s Interior Department just announced it would review the outdated federal coal leasing program, even as it reduced royalties for coal companies that are currently raking in a profit.

As for the oil and gas leasing pause and review? A court ruled that the pause was illegal, and ordered the administration to move forward with quarterly sales. In theory, the Bureau of Land Management could have offered a few hundred acres or even less and still comply with the court order. Instead, it is moving forward with auctioning off more than a half-million acres of public lands in the coming months, including:

  • 119 parcels totaling 141,675 acres in Colorado;

  • 29 parcels totaling 6,849 acres in the Montana/Dakotas office;

  • 535 acres in New Mexico;

  • 476,506 acres in Wyoming.

And even while leasing was paused, the BLM continued to hand out drilling permits at a feverish pace. Since Biden’s inauguration, the agency has issued the following tally of approvals:

  • California: 56 (all by the Bakersfield Field Office)

  • Alaska: 6

  • Colorado: 15 (Royal Gorge, Tres Rios, and White River Field Offices)

  • New Mexico: 1,372 (1,275 in the Carlsbad Field Office, or Permian Basin; 94 in the Farmington Field Office, or San Juan Basin)

  • Utah: 183 (170 in Vernal Field Office with the rest in Moab and Price)

  • Wyoming: 693 (376 in Buffalo Field Office; 198 in Casper Field Office; 74 in the Pinedale Field Office)

That’s a lot of drilling permits, making Trump’s energy dominance look a little flaccid, at best. I had a conversation with a colleague about this phenomenon recently. He argued that the BLM had no choice but to issue the permits, since the oil and gas companies were vested with private property rights when they acquired the leases. Both industry and field office managers make the same argument, parroting the ideology of the Wise Use movement of the 1990s, but it’s mostly bogus. Grazing leases and oil and gas leases are on public land, and they do not confer private property rights to anyone. If that was the case, then why bother with the permitting process? Why not just offer the drilling permits with the lease?

At the same time, it’s not Biden himself, or even Haaland, who is handing out the drilling permits. It’s the field office managers, who tend to operate how they choose, regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, the review and suggestions for reforming the oil and gas leasing program, which was due out in early summer, has yet to be made public. What’s the hold up? No one on the outside seems to know and the insiders aren’t talking. But I suspect it has something to do with Biden not wanting to upset Sen. Mitt Romney, who is a crucial ally in the fight to get the infrastructure bill passed, and who opposes the expansion of Utah national monuments.

Once the bill passes, then perhaps Biden will act.

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In the meantime, the inaction on climate change is happening even as new statistics come out showing how much the world is warming and how that is affecting wildfires and drought. Here are a few dramatic graphs:

The Southwest climate region includes the Four Corners states. While 1934 was unusually hot, it was an anomaly for the time. Now Dust Bowl-era temperatures are the new normal.

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A new study out of UC Davis demonstrates what we already suspected: Climate change is driving fires into higher elevations. This was especially apparent last year in Colorado, as megafires spread rapidly at 8,000-plus feet in elevation.

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WHAT WE’RE READING: A wonderful story from Judith Lewis Mernit in Red Canary Magazine about the Los Angeles River. There are so many fine passages of prose and insight in this piece, such as this one:

Such is the tragedy of Southern California nature: The erasure of a people also meant the erasure of a way of life, and a way of living with the natural cycles of dry years and floods that defines this coastal climate.

No more spoilers. Just read it.

And, as we do every week, we’re reading Sammy Roth’s Boiling Point newsletter from the Los Angeles Times. Last week Roth wove together impressions from a backpacking trip in the Northern Rockies with thoughts on climate change and Rosh Hashanah.

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