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Guest opinion: Department of Interior should reform oil and gas leasing system, invest in outdoor recreation

By Tim Gaylord - Special to the Daily Herald | May 2, 2023

As someone who has spent over 50 years enjoying our public lands and the outdoor opportunities they present, both personally and professionally, I believe it is time for reform of the oil and gas leasing system.

If you spend any time in our amazing public lands — whether that is spent biking, skiing, fishing, hunting, climbing or running rivers — you should care about the federal oil and gas leasing system. The way public lands are leased for oil and gas development has a significant impact on our opportunities for outdoor recreation, and many communities have economies that rely on these very opportunities. Our public lands should be managed for their many assets, yet currently, land managers put the oil and gas industry above everything else, including outdoor recreation. We all have an interest in preserving the impressive viewsheds and access to air and water quality that are fundamental to outdoor experiences, and communities with outdoor recreation economies have a vital interest in preserving these assets and protecting their brands as healthy places to visit. We need to fix a system where the interests of outdoor recreationists and countless communities are overlooked.

The problems with the oil and gas leasing system have been recognized by the Department of Interior itself. Over a year ago, DOI issued a report that found that the leasing system continues to fail Americans in several key ways such as allowing damage to the landscape that harms other multiple uses and fostering widespread oil and gas speculation. Additionally, land manager resources are consumed by managing oil and gas operations instead of other uses like outdoor recreation, even where the potential for productive oil and gas production is low and recreation activity is high.

This report was a good start, and last year we saw progress with how we manage leasing for oil and gas on public lands when Congress enacted the Inflation Reduction Act, which included reforms addressing some of the problems related to noncompetitive leasing, speculative lease nominations and outdated financial rules. However, the IRA also includes a requirement that any new projects for wind or solar energy development on federal lands cannot go forward without ongoing oil and gas leasing — to the tune of as much as 2 million acres each year. This means that multiple uses such as conservation and recreation will continue to compete with oil and gas developers.

In fact, since the passage of the IRA, the Bureau of Land Management has announced several new lease sales of our public lands to the oil and gas industry that are slated to take place this year, despite the fact that there is still no new rule for the federal oil and gas program in place that addresses all of the issues with the program identified in the DOI report. Though the BLM did issue guidance to field offices assessing new leasing proposals so that regulators comply with the IRA, this guidance is temporary and there are still several issues that have not been addressed, such as the outdated bonding requirements that have caused an abandoned well crisis throughout the nation. Without needed reforms to modernize bonding requirements, oil and gas companies will continue to abandon wells — without cleaning them up — once they’re no longer profitable, leaving them to pollute the public lands that we all value as healthy places to recreate. This is why it’s imperative that the Interior Department takes the next step and formalizes much-needed reforms through a durable rulemaking to protect our public lands for outdoor recreation for generations to come.

This proposed rulemaking would go a long way to help address the oil and gas conflicts that exist in these valuable outdoor recreation resources. Future generations deserve to continue to enjoy these beautiful areas in their natural state. Keeping the oil and gas entities accountable is a start. Figuring out how best to allow for alternative uses for these areas is next, and recreation is clearly a sustainable and effective approach. DOI must move forward with a comprehensive set of long-overdue reforms in a permanent rule that protects the future of outdoor recreation and of the public lands that I have spent my life enjoying.

Tim Gaylord is Holiday River Expeditions’ director of operations and has been guiding and running Holiday River Expeditions for over 40 years.


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