Drill, baby, drill: GOP aims to sell wilderness drilling rights — dirt cheap

Drilling rights in the Arctic wildlife refuge and Utah's Sheeprock Mountains are up for sale at bargain prices

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 3, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Republicans look like they will forge ahead with a massive tax cut bill, which estimates suggest would slash government revenues by trillions of dollars — even though congressional rules forbid passing any bill of this sort if it adds more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. To make up for part of the difference, GOP leaders are scrambling to find alternative sources of revenue. Specifically arguing that it's in the country's best interests to expand the availability of oil and gas drilling leases on public lands, even in places that have been set aside to protect imperiled wildlife species.

One of the dumber aspects of this plan is that there's no reason to believe leasing these land to drilling interests will  make any real money for the government. Instead, it appears Republicans are having a federal land fire sale, giving away sensitive areas at rock-bottom prices to benefit oil and gas interests rather than American taxpayers. Republicans are literally prepared to put hundreds of species at risk for laughably low sums of money.

“This is basically a land grab by the oil and gas industry to lock up as much of America’s oil and gas resources as they can while the getting is good," Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, told Salon. 

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to open up a huge chunk of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil leases. The explicit purpose of the proposal is to "raise sufficient revenue" to help offset the proposed tax cuts, even though doing so puts the wildlife that the refuge is meant to protect at risk. The problem, many experts say, is that there's no way that the government can make nearly as much money off drilling leases as Republicans say they can.

"The numbers and data cannot possibly justify sacrificing one of America’s most iconic and important wilderness areas and wild places," explained Matt Lee-Ashley, the senior director of environmental strategy and communications at the Center for American Progress, during a press call on the threats to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He called the Republican proposal "budgetary make-believe" and "fairy dust." 

The problem right now, as Molvar explained, is that there's "a glut of oil and gas on the market," which means that there's actually little demand for new drilling. That, in turn, drives down the prices that the government can get on these leases.

On the press call, David Murphy, a professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, argued that the government would have to get anywhere from $1,300 to $13,000 an acre to make the money Republicans argue they can generate from the refuge. In the real world, the going lease rate for land in the Arctic region is closer to $34 an acre. An analysis from the Center for American Progress shows similar numbers, estimating that the government will only realize around $37.5 million over 10 years, instead of the over $1 billion proponents have claimed. 

A similar situation is unfolding in the Sheeprock Mountains area of central Utah. Three conservation groups have made an administrative appeal to contest Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's efforts to open up the area for fossil fuel development, even though it's crucial habitat for the imperiled sage grouse, a species that's supposed to be protected by Interior Department rules. An additional 350 species, including elk and golden eagle, also face displacement if Zinke goes forward.

Again, the claimed justification for this move is energy independence and revenue generation. But as Michael Saul, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Salon, it looks more like an attempt to "sell off bargain-basement oil and gas leases" while the prices are low and there's an administration in Washington that cares more about pleasing drilling interests than about preserving the environment -- or even about realizing a decent financial return on taxpayer-owned lands. 

Public documents suggest that “federal agencies have spent at least a million dollars on [species] restoration and reintroduction efforts" in the Sheeprock Mountains, Saul said. "And now they’re selling it for $14,000."

Another complicating factor here is that oil prices are so low right now that it's not worth it, in most cases, for companies to open up new drilling ventures. This might lead some to wonder why environmentalists are in a tizzy over this. The government can invite oil companies to drill all they want, but the invisible hand of the marked dictates that they won't bother doing it of they don't stand to make money, right?

The problem, Saul points out, is that these leases are good for at least 10 years. Companies who take out leases may not drill this year or next year, but will have right to jump in as soon as oil prices go up again. "Once that habitat is lost and once that population of birds is gone," Saul added, "there’s no easy way of getting that back.”

Molvar argued that what's going on is not revenue generation, but a cozy deal whereby Republicans help their friends in the oil industry "stockpile leases and stockpile drilling permit approvals" while prices are low, so that when prices increase they can maximize profits by drilling on land they leased for almost nothing. 

The grim reality is that the Russia scandal is likely to intensify the rush to make these leases happen. As we've seen with the rushed attempts at repealing Obamacare and now with tax reform, Republicans seem to have a sense that the Trump administration could become embroiled in scandal or go belly-up at almost any moment, which creates a sense of urgency around pushing through their agenda before that happens. The window in which land is both cheap and readily available, due to Republican profligacy, may be very short.

This situation is a neat distillation of the short-sightedness that defines the contemporary Republican Party. Whatever short-term gains are to be made here — largely from campaign contributions, since the taxpayers will gain little and are in fact likely to lose money on many of these deals — come at the expense of long-term and possibly permanent damage to priceless elements of our national heritage, like the Alaskan wilderness or the sage grouse habitat. Oil drills are temporary, but when a species is lost it's gone forever.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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