Category Archives: Public Lands

Give Me Land, Lots of Land

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 Bruce Babbittmost 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.

The Canary is Still Singing

The United States is about to become the first country in history to adopt policies to ensure its own decline.  Melodramatic?  Consider that the U.S. is steadily adopting an environmental agenda promoting a lower standard of living for future generations – literally, pushing Americans to travel less, live in smaller and less comfortable homes, give up their cars and eliminate many modern conveniences.  No nation has ever even considered such a future, much less made it official policy, yet that is precisely what America is now doing – at unconscionable expense.  We are pursuing an official course of action based on the view that free enterprise is selfish, and that our people must stop much of their production, manufacturing, and especially consumption.  We are headed in this bizarre direction because of the dubious theory that our pursuit of the good life is destroying our environment.

Today’s environmental lobby has created a powerful misconception that we are “subsidizing” fossil fuels to the tune of billions, while failing to invest in renewable energy.  The idea that tax credits are “subsidies” is highly debatable, of course, since they merely let people keep more of the money they earned.  But aside from that academic debate about tax policy, we “spend” exponentially more not only in tax credits, but in direct financial subsidies for renewables, especially compared to the miniscule amount of energy produced.  The DOE reports that gas-fired power generation receives 64 cents per megawatt-hour in subsidies, and coal receives 64 cents.  By contrast, wind turbines get over $56 and photovoltaic solar systems over $775.  And in direct government outlays, it is estimated that by the summer of 2011 this Administration had spent over $60 Billion in the renewable energy sector.

Has it paid off?  Only about 6 percent of the energy in America is produced from all “renewables” combined.  That number has been growing slowly for several years because of the rising price of oil, increases in federally-funded research, and continued growth of government mandates.  The Administration’s stated goal is to double America’s “renewable energy” supply.  Even if that is successful, we will still get 88 percent of all energy from fossil fuels, and nearly 45 percent of our electricity from coal.  And the nation’s demand for energy continues to grow, not shrink.

The Minerals Information Institute says every American born today will require 587,000 pounds of coal, 5.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and 82,000 gallons of oil to live the same lifestyle we now live.  To meet future demand over the next generation with our current mix of energy sources, the country would need to build 747 new coal and gas power plants, 52 new nuclear plants and 1,000 new hydro-electric dams.  I do not know a single leader in either party who believes Americans are prepared to do that.

The coal industry in particular is facing opposition like nothing ever seen before.  The environmental movement has grown into a gigantic worldwide industry, much of it laser-focused on a battle to end the use of coal.

An analysis by the Sacramento Bee found that by the year 2000, American foundations and corporations were donating to environmental organizations at the rate of $9 million a day.  A decade later, these groups are bigger than ever, filing an average of 3 environmental lawsuits every day.

According to 2010 annual reports, the Nature Conservancy has assets of $5.65 billion and annual revenues of over $210 million (no coal mine makes that kind of money).  The Sierra Club has annual revenues of over $87 million, over 500 paid staff, and a $100 million foundation.  The Environmental Defense Fund has assets of $140 million and annual revenue of $101 million.  The Wilderness Society has over $53 million in assets and $23 million in revenue.  Trout Unlimited showed $20.4 million in revenue, and the Natural Resources Defense Council took in another $114 million.  Annual revenue of the National Wildlife Federation is $100 million; Earth Justice, $34 million; Defenders of Wildlife, another $34 million.  There are thousands of environmental organizations – more than 250 involved in mining and climate issues – spending billions in what has become a battle for the hearts and souls of American voters.

The size and success of these organizations, however, does not necessarily mean they represent majority opinion.  Indeed, much of their funding comes from a very small elite clique of foundations and wealthy individuals.  More than a third of EDF’s 2010 revenue, for instance, came from a single donor.  And consider that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s donation of $50 million largely finances the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign.

You would think with such resources aligned against the use of America’s abundant coal resources, the environmental industry would be champing at the bit for construction of solar, wind, and biomass plants.  You would be wrong.  In fact, the agenda of many of the world’s top environmental lobbyists has little to do with the environment; it’s more about money and power.

Every place where wind farms or solar plants are planned, there is opposition from these same groups.  The use of biomass (which could also help solve a desperate need to thin overgrown and dying national forests) has been all but prohibited on public lands in the West.  And the rapid improvement in clean technology for burning coal without polluting the air has been completely ignored by these groups. They could spend huge resources on requirements for cleaner coal technology, but that would actually hinder their overall effort to ban coal.

Taking back the high ground in today’s energy debate requires one very simple strategy – talking about the environment.  If the agenda is genuine, reasonable people can find common ground.  The conversation should focus on how to supply the energy America needs for a prosperous economy – in a clean, responsible, and sustainable manner – not how to simply stop our use of energy.  That might sound good to some people, but in the real world, it would leave the public freezing in the dark.

(This article was published in American Coal magazine, 2012, Vol. 1)

Energy Production = Jobs

The U.S. economic recovery from the Great Recession is tepid at best. The nation’s economic growth for the first quarter was a paltry 2.2 percent, well below expectations. Foreclosures and the inability to get financing are dampening hopes for new housing starts. Gasoline prices are pinching family budgets. This month’s unemployment figures released yesterday, show virtually no change.

With more than 20 million Americans either seeking work, under-employed, or giving up entirely on finding a job, one would think that aiding the economy and putting workers back on a payroll would be Washington’s primary focus. Although the oil and natural gas industry holds great promise for creating well-paying jobs, the federal government seems intent upon preventing its growth and success.

The United States has huge deposits of oil and natural gas to be developed. A study by the analytical firm Wood MacKenzie calculates that just increasing access to currently underdeveloped regions could result in nearly 700,000 new jobs in the United States by 2030. Moreover, data show that the oil and gas industry provides some of the best-paying jobs in the country.

In his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama spoke of the need to increase domestic energy production, specifically mentioning increasing oil and natural gas production.  With a growing population that will need more energy, the oil and gas sector can be an engine of job creation that can help pull the economy out of the doldrums – as the President said.

Consider the scale of the oil and gas industry’s contribution to the national economy.  Just in 2010 the industry invested $266 billion in new projects and enhancements to refineries and other facilities.  It paid out $176 billion to 2.1 million U.S. employees and oil and gas leaseholders. Another $35 billion was returned as dividends to investors, which include many of the nation’s pension and retirement funds, and $31 billion was paid in government taxes, royalties and fees.  In total, that is equal to more than half of the Obama “stimulus” plan spending.

But it appears the Administration’s actions will not match its rhetoric. Despite the President’s call for an “all of the above” energy strategy, ten separate federal departments and agencies are considering regulations on hydraulic fracturing, the technology without which the sharp increases in domestic oil and natural production would not be possible. It is, in truth, more of a “none of the above” strategy.

Although the President recently signed an executive order creating a task force to coordinate these regulatory actions, the drive for more regulations seems unstoppable.  The American Petroleum Institute says that “adding potentially redundant federal regulation could stifle the kind of investment that has led to lower energy prices for consumers, more American jobs, and increased energy security.”

In my home state of Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has prompted criticism over its proposal to scale back the amount of acreage available for oil shale and tar sands development. The boards of three counties have passed resolutions against the BLM’s plan, demanding more public input.  The Mesa County statement claims BLM has been hijacked “by a host of anti-oil shale pro-wilderness groups steering BLM’s every move.” Sound melodramatic?

Consider that the estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of oil in the Piceance Basin shale formation exceeds all of the known oil reserves of the entire world – yet is still largely off limits under current federal policy.

Even without it, Colorado’s promising Niobrara shale formation and other energy activity is helping to fill America’s energy needs and creating jobs. It’s estimated that the oil and gas industry already employs 50,000 Coloradans directly, and indirectly supports 190,000 more jobs. But the state’s energy potential could be cut short by piling on additional federal regulations, while walling off some of our most energy-rich lands.

If we really want to create jobs, shouldn’t we ramp up domestic energy production, rather than slow it down?

I Want You – To Do My Job!

Friday’s Denver post featured an AP story about the catastrophic Arizona wildfires, mentioning the usually-taboo topic of the destruction of endangered species and their habitat. A good friend sent an email pointing out that “It’s ironic that litigation over Mexican spotted owls was the primary reason that forest management was shut down in Arizona,” while the Post article says, “now crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds.”

Ironic, you say? Ironic?!

One of the oddities in Endangered Species Act enforcement is the unequal treatment of public and private landowners. Government official are fond of pointing out that the vast majority of habitat for most endangered species is on private land. That’s because they want to force private owners to manage private lands for the benefit of the species, while officials smugly ignore the government’s own role in the loss of vital habitat.

The Mexican spotted owl is the latest poster child, of many.  As the AP article pointed out, 73 nest areas were destroyed by the latest fire – that is more than half of all the known nesting areas in that entire national forest. This is not an isolated or coincidental occurrence, either. In Colorado, the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire and the 2002 Hayman fire destroyed more than half the known Mexican spotted owl habitat in that State. The same fate befell the unfortunate California spotted owl over the past few years – fifteen identified owl sites incinerated in two 2005 fires on the Eldorado National Forest, and twenty more in that State’s 2007 Moonlight Fire.

What is truly fascinating is the government’s continued use of the spotted owl as a favorite tool, not for recovery of the owls, but for stopping human activity – even activity that would improve the habitat!

When the Fish and Wildlife Service designated the official “critical habitat” for the Mexican spotted owl in 2004, it said “Forests used for roosting and nesting often contain mature or old-growth stands with complex structure. These forests are typically uneven-aged, multistoried, and have high canopy closure.” In other words, they need healthy forests with trees of varying ages, not single-age stands, and certainly not dead forests. The agency said the two primary threats to the continued existence of the species were “even-aged timber management,” and catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service has done nothing about either problem since that document was written, so the problem is worse than ever.

The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the deaths of vast tracts of forest, caused by bark beetles, are at least partly responsible for the “alteration of habitat.” And the recovery plan called for action to head off that growing disaster: “Clearly, forest management that decreases forest density, primarily by thinning from below, will help to control populations of some of these organisms.”

So given these fairly obvious circumstances, what has the government done to thin the forests and restore healthy stands of multi-aged trees? Nothing. Instead, managers have steadily eroded the Forest Service’s budget for any and all timber activities, and spent billions on other “missions,” such as trails, campgrounds, research, studies, green job creation, climate change, and grant programs.

It is unclear how many spotted owls may actually have been killed by these giant wildfires – in fact the government has no idea how many there are, how many there ever were, or whether their population is increasing or decreasing. Nor is there any definition of what population would constitute recovery of this threatened species.

What is very clear is that the owls will continue to be used as an excuse to regulate and limit forest thinning, recreation, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. It is equally clear that any private landowner who purposely took action – or refused action – that resulted in the death and destruction of hundreds of spotted owls would be in deep trouble.

When I headed the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, I once thought the State should simply sue the federal government for failing to manage forests in a manner that would protect the habitat of the spotted owl (and numerous other endangered species). Such a lawsuit would certainly draw attention to the government’s own culpability in the species’ decline, and perhaps begin to apply the same standard to public land managers as to private.

Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar was reluctant to file that suit at the time, pointing out the difficulty in holding a government agency accountable for not taking some action. Maybe he was right. I am not a lawyer, but if you ask me – and any number of owls – lack of action is action.

Maybe Uncle Sam should point that finger at himself once in a while.

Change the Words, Not Your Mind

Government no longer “spends your money.”  It “invests in your future.” 

 If, despite that clear distinction, you still don’t feel good about multi-trillion-dollar deficits, it’s because you must understand one of the most important techniques in the art of debate – when you’re losing, change the terms.  Successful politicians must master that art if they want to push unpopular policies.  If “illegal alien” sounds bad, change the words to “undocumented workers.”  If “estate tax” sounds OK to people who have no “estate,” call it the “death tax” and it affects everyone who might eventually die.  A simple change in terms often changes the outcome of debates, legislative votes, and even elections.

Changing the words is a long and proud tradition in the world of conservation, too.  That’s how national forest timber management became “below-cost timber sales” and “logging old growth,” the result of which was an almost complete end to active forest management (and today’s dead and dying forests).  That’s also how vast tracts of public lands became “the last great places,” which must be protected from public use.  It is a technique both sides practice regularly, but that doesn’t make it any more honest or less cynical.

One of the great examples is being played out in today’s debate over global warming.  As average global temperatures leveled off in the past decade, “global warming” became “climate change,” since that includes both warming AND cooling.  As more recent scientific research makes the causes of climate changes less certain, an increasingly skeptical public has begun to shy away from “solutions” that seem harsh, expensive, or difficult.  Thus, Congress could not muster enough votes to pass the proposed cap-and-trade bill several years in a row, and the effort now appears dead.

Not to be deterred, however, advocates have resorted once again to the tried-and-true technique of changing the terms.  It has become unpopular in a time of spiking gas prices to propose the ban on drilling for oil and gas that many environmental activists actually want.  They recognize that an end to the use of fossil fuels to power our economy is simply not achievable in the foreseeable future.  That’s why they have tried for several years to convince the public that our use of natural resources to create prosperity is evil, and that our pursuit of the good life is destroying the planet.  But we all learned about carbon dioxide in school science classes, and we certainly do not intend to stop exhaling.  That is why it is now known as a “greenhouse gas” – because “emitting” any “gas” sounds like something we should stop doing.   It is a debate such advocates are losing in the court of public opinion, for several reasons:

  •  There is a limit to how much Americans can pay for gas, heat, and electricity;
  • Many people are no longer convinced of a direct link between their use of energy and any catastrophic change in the Earth’s climate;
  • Revelations about fraudulent manipulation of scientific data has damaged the credibility of man-made global warming alarmists;
  • The economic recession has “cooled” Americans’ willingness to raise taxes, hinder businesses, and slow job creation – for any reason.

Does this mean advocates of a cap-and-trade policy will give up the effort?  Of course not.  It means they will change the terms, and that effort is well underway now.  Witness the new desire on the part of state and federal administrations across the country to adopt policies that promote “clean energy.”  What exactly is “clean energy?”  At the risk of stating the obvious, it means energy that comes from sources other than oil, gas, coal, methane, biomass, biofuels, nuclear, shale, tar sands, hydropower, or any source that requires pipelines, power lines, or other infrastructure (can we use wind and solar power without power lines?).  In a nutshell, it means we should stop using so much energy.  It means the same thing all the previous debates meant, just with different words.

Expect to hear the term “clean energy” repeated across the political landscape non-stop for the next several years.  Experts know that repetition is the key to successfully changing the terms of a debate.  As Berkeley Professor George Lakoff advises liberals, “Repetition of such articulations is the key to redefining these words…” 

The Republican “Word Doctor” Frank Luntz explains the importance of repetition: “There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”

That is why the debate of the next few years will be about “clean energy.”  It is a legitimate debate, so long as everyone knows exactly what it is really about.  Just remember, the story you are about to see is true; only the names have been changed to protect the political agenda.

Lassie Lynx Come Home!

The government says lynx won’t cross a road, a pipeline, or a ski area.  But mountains, rivers, and plains don’t seem to be a problem.

In 1943 “Lassie Come Home” was an international box-office sensation, a Technicolor tear-jerker about the long, difficult journey home of a dog separated from his owner by hundreds of miles of wild country, bad weather and mean men.  They’re still making sequels, story books, and TV shows 60 years later.  But Lassie’s dramatic journey into the hearts of millions was nowhere near as impressive as the recent trek home of a Canadian lynx named “BC-03-M-02” – and Hollywood didn’t even notice.

Maybe the Colorado Division of Wildlife could have found more marketable names when some 200 Canadian lynx were introduced into the State as a way to recover an extinct population in the Southern Rockies (hindsight is always 20-20).  Movies, books, and TV shows could have highlighted the incredible achievements of these amazing animals – and “BC-03-M-02” would not have been the only star.  His accomplishment should be legendary by now: he was captured near Kamloops, British Columbia in 2003, brought 1,350 miles to Southern Colorado and released into the wild to find his own way.  And he did.  Tracked by a radio collar every step of the way, he settled in, ate well, found a mate, and sired at least two litters of kittens before disappearing off the radar in 2007.

No one was surprised when he vanished.  Numerous other lynx in this experiment had died: a few starved to death, several were shot by mean men, a few hit by cars, and some turned up dead for no apparent reason – perhaps some just lost the will to live with so much regulation and government meddling.  But many others established large territories and wandered brave distances, to the everlasting embarrassment of the U.S. Forest Service.  That agency had claimed these remarkable cats would only eat snowshoe hares, so their population would rise and fall with the rabbits – but these lynx eat snowshoe hares, other rodents, squirrels, prairie dogs, birds, and even an old lady’s dog in Durango.  The government said ski areas would destroy lynx habitat – but one of the cats actually lived on a ski slope through an entire winter season and apparently enjoyed it.  The government said lynx couldn’t live further south than Colorado – but several have moved to New Mexico, apparently unaware of the state line.

Most shockingly, the Forest Service said lynx would not/could not cross open areas greater than 100 yards; they would only survive in dense forests where there were no people – but no one told the lynx.  Thanks to radio collars, the real behavior of these animals is now well documented.  Some crossed the San Luis Valley, one was recaptured after crossing the Great Plains to Wakeeney, Kansas, and several have been tracked north across Wyoming and even Montana.  But the Oscar goes to lynx “BC-03-M-02,” which had not vanished forever, but literally trudged all the way back to Canada – without a GPS system.

The cats have survived well in Colorado, despite the stubborn existence of towns, roads, vehicles and 5 million people.  The Forest Service theories were not based on science, of course, but on their desire to use lynx as an excuse to halt ski area expansion, close roads, ban snowmobiles, stop logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, and grazing. 

We brought lynx back to Colorado for a simple reason – environmental decisions ought to be based on science, not political agendas.  People can argue about the desirability of snowmobiles, ski areas, ranching, logging and energy production – arguing is recreation for westerners.  But those disputes are not really about the lynx – they continue to eat, sleep, drink, and make kittens, as if completely unaware of this flurry of activity on their behalf.  The poor animals are simply caught in the cross-fire because of the awesome regulatory power of the Endangered Species Act, the biggest tool in the toolbox for stopping human activity.  So in Colorado we decided to recover the species, so they would no longer be threatened – nor would our use of the national forests.  Today, Colorado’s healthy lynx population is among the great success stories in the history of conservation, though the government can’t admit it.

The classic tragedy in this story is lynx “BC-03-M-02.”  He made the amazing expedition of over 1,200 miles, but almost within sight of his destination back in Kamloops, he was caught and killed by a trap near Nordegg, Alberta on January 28, 2010.  Only a couple reporters have noted the significance of that journey, but there is still time for Hollywood to catch up.  The good news, of course, is his two litters of kittens – at least 6 in all – whose existence provides hope for the first of many sequels: “Son of BC-03-M-02.”