“Energy Dominance”: Three Years of a Disastrous Policy for Wildlife and Communities

March 2020 marked a somber anniversary. Three years ago, the Trump administration announced its so-called “energy dominance” doctrine, which, as the name implies has put energy development as the priority for our public lands. Since then, the administration has tried to lease a whopping 24.5 million acres of public land—land that is meant to be managed in a way that sustains “the health, diversity and productivity of the lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Unfortunately, this wrong-headed approach puts corporate interest over public interest and jeopardizes the health of our wildlife, our lands, and our waters for future generations.

This policy is occurring in the wrong time, the wrong way, and in the wrong places.

Wrong time

Now, as Americans are rightfully dealing with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the administration is not only continuing to offer up new public lands for energy development, it is rolling back important environmental regulations. As American families juggle work, school, and day-to-day tasks all from home, it’s time to hit the pause button on this unchecked, unfair, and unnecessary oil and gas leasing program. There simply isn’t time right now for Americans to track and oppose harmful oil and gas lease sales.

The administration’s rampant leasing continues even now when there’s a supply glut, when oil and gas workers are being laid off, and companies aren’t interested in leasing. A quick look at the results of the first quarter lease sales of 2020 tells it all. From January to March 2020, the administration tried to lease more than a quarter of a million acres of public land. Only half of the leases sold, and half of those leases have gone for as little as $2 an acre – less than a cup of coffee. The rest will now be made available for industry to scoop up over the next two years — behind closed doors and for bargain-rates — through a wasteful process known as non-competitive leasing. By doing so, the administration is taking public lands out of public hands and imperiling the wildlife that call those places home. 

Public lands provide habitat for a diverse array of wildlife, including the burrowing owl. Credit: USFWS.

Wrong practices

For far too long, oil and gas companies have enjoyed sweetheart deals which have allowed them to scoop up leases on our public lands at rock bottom prices. Often these energy speculators have no intention of developing these lands because there’s almost no oil and gas located there. The companies simply want to use the leases to pad their bottom line. The problem is that once the lands are leased, they aren’t managed for other purposes such as recreation, habitat restoration, or wildlife migration corridor protection.

This is all because of decades-old federal onshore oil and gas leasing policies that set royalty rates at prices from 1920 and rental rates and minimum bids at prices from 1987 — literally. These outdated rates rob American taxpayers of revenues that could support public health, education, infrastructure projects and other local priorities that are needed now more than ever in these trying economic times.

Wrong places

The leases are also being offered up in the wrong places. Over the past three years, the administration has tried to sell leases in or near such cherished places as the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Canyonlands and the Sand Flats in Utah and the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Those leases were eventually deferred after a huge public outcry, but deferred leases are often simply re-offered in future lease sales.

Leases have also been offered up in areas which contain critical sage grouse habitat and wildlife migration corridors. In the name of its “energy dominance” agenda, the administration dismantled the historic 2015 sage grouse plans which were crafted by a group of bipartisan western governors, ranchers, industry representatives and conservationists. Those plans carefully balanced the needs of various stakeholders while conserving the health of sagebrush country and the 350 species that depend on it. Instead, the current administration has been shuffling papers, looking for loopholes and tying up the courts while the sagebrush ecosystem degrades and sage grouse populations dwindle.

Male greater sage grouse in mating display Credit: Dave Menke/USFWS.

Path forward

Americans cherish our public lands. It’s obvious from the way they have tried to flock to parks, forests, and wildlife refuges in recent weeks to seek solace and respite from the stresses of the global pandemic. It’s obvious from polling that year after year, Americans want public lands protected from corporate greed. And it’s obvious from the more than 10,000 comments that National Wildlife Federation members wrote to the Bureau of Land Management this week opposing the administration’s latest efforts to destroy sage grouse habit.

Now, while America is dealing with the global pandemic, the administration should take a timeout from its energy dominance agenda and stop offering any new leases. Then, when the worst of the pandemic is behind us, Congress must pass leasing reforms to bring royalty and leasing rates into the 21st century. It’s the right thing to do to restore balance back to our public lands, to improve the health of our wildlife populations and to ensure that future generations will enjoy America’s rich outdoor heritage.

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