Seventy-five years ago, President Harry Truman merged the General Land Office and the Grazing Service to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the primary manager of our nation’s public lands. Here in Nevada — where the agency manages over 60 percent of the state’s land — the decisions made by that agency in those seventy-five years have played an important role in shaping our state’s economy and outdoor identity. Unfortunately, because of the outdated federal oil and gas program, which is older than the agency itself, these public lands are at risk; but leaders in the Biden administration are working to fix this.
In observation of this anniversary, the BLM is inviting public land users to “reimagine your public lands.” As we do this, it is important to recognize that there is a project moving forward right now on our public lands here in Nevada that should be reimagined itself.
Last month, BLM started the approval process for the Diamond Valley Project — an exploratory oil and gas drilling proposal just west of the iconic Ruby Mountains. The proposed drilling area overlaps important lands for wildlife, including designated sage-grouse habitat, a mule deer migration corridor, and portions of the Huntington Creek watershed, which supports populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). In fact, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has previously raised concerns about oil development in the area.
How can an agency that wants to reimagine our public lands be moving forward with such a problematic project? In short, the answer is that BLM is bound by decades-old laws and policies that limit their ability to weigh all of the multiple uses of these lands and make decisions that best serve all public lands users, not just oil companies.
Just look at how the Diamond Valley Project was leased: through a loophole in the federal leasing program called noncompetitive leasing. This loophole — which has been widely exploited in Nevada — lets oil and gas companies scoop up huge amounts of public lands without having to bid on them at auction. They do so while paying a measly $1.50 per acre, a tiny amount that lets speculators sit on lands that the rest of us own and deny opportunities to manage those lands for conservation or outdoor recreation.
The long-term impacts of this drilling proposal are also not being adequately accounted for. The project’s developers were apparently only required to post a bond of $10,000. Bonds are required before drilling can start and are supposed to cover the cost of cleaning up oil wells in case a company goes bankrupt and leaves them behind. Reclaiming public lands in a timely manner is important because orphaned wells emit methane and other pollutants, endangering communities’ air and water and hurting wildlife. But despite all of the fish and wildlife conflicts with the Diamond Valley Project, BLM has seemingly accepted a bond that will almost certainly not cover the true cost of cleanup. The federal rates that determine these bonds have not been updated since the 1950s and 60s. As a result, taxpayers are increasingly forced to pay for clean-up costs while the company that left its mess behind pays next to nothing. This irresponsible and destructive situation should not be happening anywhere, let alone in the landscapes surrounding the Ruby Mountains.
So, to review: public lands that include sensitive fish and wildlife habitat were scooped up for oil drilling in a backroom deal for pennies on the dollar, all to support a project that will endanger that habitat and potentially leave toxic orphaned wells behind that taxpayers like you and me have to pay to clean up. Thankfully, the Biden administration is now taking steps to reform the broken federal leasing system, with a goal of avoiding the types of conflicts that we see with this project. Furthermore, Nevada’s Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen have both introduced legislation to modernize the leasing program so it works for everyone while Montana Senator Jon Tester previously introduced a bill to end noncompetitive leasing – the policy responsible for this project in the first place – that the Senate should take up this session.
The BLM and Department of the Interior are committed to reimagining our public lands. We hope this means that they will take a hard look at the Diamond Valley Project — and others like it — and seriously consider whether it is truly in the best interest of the public, as well as the sensitive fish and wildlife species that call the project area home. This predicament demonstrates just how badly the federal oil and gas program fails Nevada’s taxpayers, public lands, and wildlife. As Secretary Haaland and leaders in Congress work to reform the leasing system, let us all commit to reimagining how our public lands should be managed in a way that works for us all.
Russell Kuhlman is the executive director of the Nevada Wildlife Federation.
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