It’s Time to Stop Searching for What’s Not There

Multiple times a year, Nevada has been subjected to a folly that defies logic, as the federal government -- owner of 85 percent of our state’s lands -- tries to lease our public lands to oil and gas companies, despite our state having little to no oil reserves.

An oil well near U.S. Route 6 in Railroad Valley, Nevada - photo: Famartin. This image is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Opinion

The Biden administration set out to right this wrong, but so far, it is falling short of finishing the job. 

The numbers on oil and gas leasing in Nevada over the last several years show us how broken the federal leasing program is. Because of the state’s lack of significant oil reserves, lands offered for lease are often not sold at competitive auction. Only 9 percent of the 2.6 million acres of federal lands in Nevada offered for oil and gas leasing by the last administration sold competitively, nearly three-quarters of which received only the minimum bid: a measly $2 per acre.

Furthermore, Nevada has been a breeding ground for a backdoor loophole known as non-competitive leasing which allows oil and gas CEOs and speculators to lease large swaths of public lands without bidding on them at auction. A whopping 70 percent of all acres leased noncompetitively nationwide for oil and gas development in the last decade were in Nevada. Because noncompetitive leases almost never enter production, the percentage of leased acreage in Nevada that entered production over the last two decades has never exceeded 3 percent. 

Pronghorn Antelope – photo courtesy of USFWS and Russell Kuhlman, executive director, Nevada Wildlife Federation

What does this mean for Nevadans — people like you and me — the public lands we cherish, and the fish and wildlife that depend on our state’s healthy landscapes to thrive? It means we are getting fleeced to the tune of millions of dollars of lost potential revenue each year while recreation, wildlife conservation, and other important uses on huge chunks of public lands take a back seat. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ends up spending far too much time processing these unnecessary and wasteful lease sales and not enough time managing resources that actually exist on Nevada’s public lands. And it is about to get worse. 

Right now, the Department of the Interior is moving forward with a lease sale in Nevada covering more than 10,000 acres of public lands. The lands being offered include prime wildlife habitat for pronghorn and other big game — habitat that Governor Steve Sisolak and the BLM have prioritized protecting. Over 97 percent of the 872,000 acres in authorized leases in Nevada lay idle, yet the Biden administration is moving forward with a plan to lock up even more of our state’s land in unused oil and gas leases.

It simply does not have to be this way. Early on, President Biden ordered a pause on new leasing while the Interior Department under Secretary Deb Haaland conducted a review of the program. This was a common-sense move that started the process of reforming some of the many glaring errors in the leasing program. But the pause was struck down by a judge, and the administration now feels that it must hold this lease sale before it has fixed any of the leasing program’s glaring problems.

Drill rig – photo courtesy of USFWS and Russell Kuhlman, executive director, Nevada Wildlife Federation

By moving forward with this lease sale under the status quo, the Biden administration is failing to live up to the commitment it made just a few months ago to finally fix the broken federal oil and gas program. Luckily, Congress has the ability and opportunity to step in, and members of Nevada’s congressional delegation are already leading the way. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto has introduced a bill to prohibit the leasing of lands with little to no drilling potential, an effort Congresswoman Susie Lee is leading in the House. Meanwhile, Senator Jacky Rosen has introduced a bipartisan bill with Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa to modernize the federal oil and gas program’s outdated fiscal rates, which cost taxpayers in the state over $50 million in lost revenue between 2009 and 2018. And bills to end noncompetitive leasing have also been introduced, so it is imperative that Congress acts. 

These are important steps forward, but the Biden administration must act as well. Time is running out. It is indefensible for the Biden administration to move forward with lease sales without first taking concrete steps to reform the system that has so often hurt Nevadans,  and our public lands and wildlife. Congress has an excellent opportunity to do its part right now. The administration should seize the momentum as well by reforming the leasing program so that it works for everyone. 


Robert Gaudet is a director and past president of the Nevada Wildlife Federation


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.