Commentary

Public lands should be used for the benefit of the public

June 7, 2022 12:26 pm

Oil and gas infrastructure is seen on the Roan Plateau in far western Colorado. (Courtesy of EcoFlight)

Editor’s note: Due to a third-party error the originally published version of this commentary contained draft language not intended for publication. The piece has been updated.

Our public lands are central to Western communities: They support wildlife habitat, forestry, agriculture, recreation and limited mineral extraction. Public lands, which in Western states account for almost half of all land, belong to everyone and should serve the public good.

But, for too long, federal public lands policies have not aligned with our communities’ best interests or our way of life. Now, while families are hurting due to rising fuel prices brought on by the crisis in Ukraine, many oil and gas companies are taking advantage of the broken federal oil and gas leasing system to call for more leasing and drilling on our public lands.

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Farmers’ livelihoods are at risk amid these challenges. High prices for fuel are directly affecting farmers and ranchers, threatening their bottom lines, and changing their decisions on how to farm. In addition to paying record high prices for fuel and fertilizer, farmers are being hit with rising inflation rates. Interest rates are rising, and farmers are making decisions that will affect yields and their futures. Yet, as American farm families are being hit hardest, oil and gas companies are making record profits and pushing for more access to our public lands.

For years, these same companies have been getting cut-rate deals to lease public lands, sometimes for less than the price of a cup of coffee per acre, and have been let off the hook for paying to clean up after themselves when they’re done drilling. We know people are hurting, but more leasing to oil companies — especially under a decades-old, broken federal leasing program — is not the answer and won’t help farmers or rural communities.

With national conversation heating up about the potential to drill even more on our public lands and the Biden administration and Congress considering important policy changes, it is essential that the public’s voice is heard.

Under the broken leasing system, even when drilling does occur, communities are often left with the bill to clean up industry’s mess. This is because federal oil and gas bonds, which are supposed to act as an insurance policy in the event a company goes bankrupt, have not been updated since the 1950s and ’60s. The Government Accountability Office found as many as 99% of existing bonds are too low to cover cleanup costs — leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay for cleanup. Good management and stewardship of our public lands means not letting oil and gas companies scoop up even more public lands for pennies on the dollar — especially when that won’t help hurting families — and updating federal bonding rates to hold companies accountable to pay to clean up after themselves when they drill.

Recent polling from Colorado College shows that Western voters are more than aware that our oil and gas leasing program is not working for public lands, taxpayers or our communities. In fact, 75% of Colorado voters and 67% of New Mexico voters say that oil and gas drilling on public lands should be strictly limited or even stopped altogether — even though 87% of Western voters were concerned with the cost of gas. With national conversation heating up about the potential to drill even more on our public lands and the Biden administration and Congress considering important policy changes, it is essential that the public’s voice is heard. And we are loud and clear: It’s time to put good stewardship of our public lands first.

Fortunately, there is legislation moving through Congress that would make these much-needed changes. Bills supported by Sens. Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Martin Heinrich, and Reps. Alan Lowenthal and Teresa Leger Fernández would clean up orphaned wells and increase minimum bonding rates so that taxpayers need never foot the bill for industry’s mess in the future. This would mark a vast improvement for farmers and communities, who are hurt by the current system.

Rocky Mountain farmers, ranchers, and rural communities deserve better. Thankfully, Congress and the administration can take bold action to make sure our public lands work for everyone. While farmers, ranchers, and families are hurting from inflation and mile-high gas prices, there has never been a better time for our leaders to enact changes that protect us and our public lands for years to come.

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Dale McCall
Dale McCall

Dr. Dale McCall is president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a general farm organization whose member families represent all types of production agriculture. McCall continues to be an active part in his family farm near Yuma.

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