Bruce Babbitt says President Obama is not a good enough environmentalist. Last week the former Interior Secretary and one-time presidential candidate made a remarkable speech, in which he accused the Obama Administration of failing to maintain a balance between energy development and conservation. He claimed that the Administration has allowed 6 million acres of land to be leased for energy development, while permanently protecting only 2.6 million acres. His solution is to recommend a new policy that every acre leased for energy development ought to be accompanied by an acre permanently “set aside for conservation.”
Like we must be punished for our reliance on energy – an eye for an eye, an acre for an acre.
Babbitt is a grand master of spin, but this one strains credulity even for the most gullible. He made it sound as if we are in a race to drill and destroy vast tracts of public lands for corporate profits, while we ignore the dire need to protect the last great places from….. well I guess he didn’t say what these places need protected from. He trashed House Republicans who he says are “more interested in throwing themselves off metaphorical cliffs than protecting any real ones.”
I know, right?
Has someone been drilling oil wells on the side of cliffs without our notice? Are cliffs across America falling down absent special wilderness protection? These rotten Republicans, he said, “will take up Big Oil’s cause and again call for a fire sale of public lands for corporate use.” Temper, temper. Fairly dishonest vitriol from someone who should understand that there is no sale of public lands – even if leased for oil and gas development, the land remains public forever and is restored at the end of the process.
What is missing from Babbitt’s diatribe is context, as usual with such proposals. If he really wants an acre-for-acre balance between land set aside for permanent protection and land permitted for energy production, then we have a lot of drilling to do!
Consider the raw numbers. The government owns almost a third of the United States, nearly 650 million acres of land, a large percentage of it underlain with oil, gas, coal, and other vital resources. The government’s primary oil and gas leasing agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), leases just under 38 million acres for oil and gas production – that’s about 5.6% of the government’s land. There are oil and gas leases also on some Forest Service lands and some wildlife refuges, but most leasing is on BLM land. And that number has been shrinking for years, not growing.
In 1990 the BLM leased 63.7 million acres for oil and gas. By 1993 (when Babbitt became Interior Secretary) that number had fallen to 41.8 million acres. By the time he left office in 2001 he had reduced the number to 37.9 million acres. It was increased slightly during the Bush Administration, but has declined steadily under Obama, back to the Babbitt level.
Babbitt was in charge, so he should know the number has declined. But of course, his point isn’t just about putting a stop to oil and gas development, though that is a favorite goal. He and his allies want continued designation of wilderness – areas where virtually nothing is allowed except walking quietly. That’s why Babbitt calls for lands to be “set aside” that have already been “set aside.” There are already 250 million acres of BLM lands, 193 million acres of national forests, 84 million acres of national park lands, and 150 million acres of national wildlife refuges. Those are already “set aside” from ever being sold.
To be sure, some of those lands might be available for oil and gas leasing, so Babbitt wants wilderness designations to prevent that. And wilderness advocates are clearly winning that battle. We have “set aside for conservation” not the 2.6 million acres he cited in the speech, but over 110 million acres officially designated as wilderness, never to be touched for energy or any other use again. That’s more than triple the amount of land where energy production is allowed. And it only scratches the surface, because that only includes land Congress has specifically declared wilderness. It does not include millions of acres “managed” as wilderness without congressional designation.
For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages some 540 wildlife refuges, but also 38 wetland management districts and 36,000 fee and easement “waterfowl production areas.” A wide variety of special land designations have also been used (some pioneered by Babbitt) to prevent energy development, including Research Natural Areas, Cultural Resource Sites, Historic Sites, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Natural Landmarks, National Trails, National Marine Sanctuaries, Estuarine Sanctuaries, Biosphere Reserves, and parts of international networks like Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserves and Wetlands of International Importance. BLM and the Forest Service also use similar designations to add additional layers of “protection” beyond what Congress specifically authorized.
You can guess how much oil and gas drilling will be permitted in those areas. Similarly, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed designating another 11 million BLM acres as “wildlands” and ordering wilderness management, without any congressional action. The proposal was so unpopular he had to withdraw it a year later because most Americans understand the dilemma of a nation that depends on foreign oil while locking up its own.
You have to admit that Bruce Babbitt has always been consistent in his advocacy against public uses of public lands. But the idea that we should continue to wall off American resources badly needed in a stagnant economy is just consistently wrong.