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Vernal, Utah, is a town of less than 10,000 people in the northeast corner of the state. Vernal is on the high desert surrounded by sparsely-populated federal and Indian lands, amidst spectacular canyons. Decades ago I went to Vernal as the jumping-off point for several whitewater raft trips we took on the Yampa, Green, and Salmon rivers, and the air, land and water for many miles around was amazingly pristine. No more; by 2010 oil and gas drilling and production had polluted the air so much that Vernal’s ozone levels rivaled those in Los Angeles.
Why did this happen on land which the federal government either owned outright or controlled all subsurface mineral rights? Bill Stringer, the regional director of the Bureau of Land Management in northeastern Utah, qualifies as one small villain. In the last nine years when Stringer has been the top BLM official in Vernal, his office has approved an average of 555 new oil and gas wells a year. Ultimate responsibility of course lies higher up the chain of command: in March President Obama asserted that “We’re drilling all over the place” on federal lands, which doesn’t sound much different from the “Drill, baby, drill” mantra from Republican leaders.
Politics and government involve balancing competing interests, so let’s step back and look at how American law says we should treat public lands and mineral interests. The BLM administers public lands totaling about one-eighth of America’s land mass, and also manages the federal government’s ownership of subsurface mineral rights in over twice that much land. Early federal law encouraged private settlement and ownership of open spaces, such as under the Homestead Act, but the late 19th century and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency saw a shift towards continued public ownership. Congress directed the President to keep and manage public lands that had not already gone to private owners, but to allow some private use such as under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 which permitted leasing, exploration, and production of coal, oil and gas on federal properties. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) mandated that remaining public lands would stay under federal ownership and BLM management, and gave BLM its policy instructions: BLM was to use “multiple use” management, defined as “management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people.”
So how does the balancing come out? The BLM apparently gives a zero value to possible global warming from mining fossil fuels that have been buried for hundreds of millions of years and burning them. Stringer and his office apparently ignore the science which says that mining and burning more hydrocarbons is is causing global warming, which will be bad for the “future needs of the American people.” His office apparently give some values to the recreation values in what was once nice country, but it is a light touch. The reality, as once retired BLM employee put it, is that “Oil and gas trumps everything else” in the Vernal office. Clearly it’s an election year, and candidates are pandering to voters’ demands for jobs and benefits now, but the eventual costs of heavy oil and gas extraction on public lands will be large in Vernal and elsewhere.
Image by Bárdos Veronika Győr. (Transferred from the Hungarian Wikipedia.) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons