Public News Service: Tester Bill Would End No-Bid Oil, Gas Leasing on Public Lands

by Eric Tegethoff

HELENA, Mont. – What happens when an oil or gas lease on Bureau of Land Management land goes up for auction and no one bids on it? It isn’t taken off the market.

Instead, oil companies can buy the lease for the low price of a $1.50 per acre. That’s why Sen. Jon Tester – D-Mont. – is introducing the Leasing Market Efficiency Act, which would eliminate the practice of non-competitive leasing.

Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands with the National Wildlife Federation, says 1.4 million acres or two-thirds of Montana public lands leased for oil and gas development are sitting idle.

“And yet those lands are being managed as if they are pumping oil and gas out of the ground,” says Stone-Manning. “That just isn’t right for taxpayers. That just isn’t right for wildlife, certainly. And it’s just not right for the future.”

A third of Montana lands leased for oil and gas through BLM since 1987 were sold non-competitively, according to research from The Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities. The BLM has defended the practice, saying it creates jobs and helps push the country toward energy independence.

Stone-Manning says the Leasing Market Efficiency Act would leave it to the market to determine whether land is valuable for oil and gas development.

“If we put something up for sale,” says Stone-Manning, “our precious natural resources that we all own as public-land owners – and it doesn’t get any bids, we should just take it off the table and say, ‘We’re going to do something different.’ “

A Congressional Budget Office report found only 3% of lands leased non-competitively between 1996 and 2003 were developed at the end of their ten-year terms.

Stone-Manning says the BLM is wasting resources when it could focus on things such as habitat improvement and public-lands infrastructure.

“If the Forest Service were managing grassland and there are no trees but it’s managing it for a timber sale, that doesn’t make any sense,” says Stone-Manning. “And so of course they don’t do that. Our technology is good enough now that we know where the oil and gas is.”

Stone-Manning says the agency should abide by its multiple-use mandate and manage lands for grazing, recreation, hunting and wildlife, rather than favoring oil and gas development.