Tasked with the sustainable management of the United States’ lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources, as well as oversight of tribal nations and island communities, the Department of the Interior has the challenging job of finding a middle ground between sometimes wildly divergent interests. America’s national forests—under the Department of Agriculture—have traditionally been deemed the “land of many uses”, but today it’s the Interior that faces a similar challenge of managing diverse lands for diverse stakeholders.
The nomination of Sally Jewell, the CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), as the new Secretary of the Interior highlights the complex challenges and opportunities of both the office and its top post. With a career that includes work in petroleum engineering and outdoor recreation, she embodies two of our public lands’ most prominent competing uses: oil and gas development and recreation.
Both industries offer significant contributions to the U.S. economy. The outdoor recreation industry employs approximately 6.1 million people in the U.S. and accounts for $646 billion in consumer spending, according to a recent Outdoor Industry Association report. Meanwhile, the oil and natural gas industry—only a fraction of which operates on public lands—provides for 9.6 million American jobs, according to the American Petroleum Institute, and $514.7 billion in direct consumer spending via gasoline, natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. (API places the industry’s total contribution to GDP at $1.1 trillion.)
But are these two very different land uses compatible? Our current trajectory of public land management provides for selective protection and selective extraction. Consider it a form of public land multitasking. As studies continue to show, however, multitasking demands sacrifices from our brains and in our daily lives, including suffering productivity. Might our public lands fall victim to a similar productivity slump, where in trying to maximize every possible use, we instead diminish them all to the detriment of this and future generations? Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first head, challenged the agency "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run." How might the Interior rise to that same challenge today under Jewell’s leadership?
A recent survey by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project sheds light on the discussion about what we want on our public lands, what we want from our public lands, and how we use those lands … public lands owned by and for the people, including the 140 million Americans who identify as outdoor recreationists—hiking, camping, biking, fishing, hunting, skiing, climbing. The poll reveals that the vast majority of Westerners, who live in the so-called public lands states, feel strongly that those public lands should be safeguarded for future use and enjoyment. However, only 34 percent realize that 38 million acres of those public lands are under current leases for energy resource extraction (e.g. oil and gas drilling). The survey also uncovered a notable perspective on energy. When given a choice of seven energy resources (ranging from solar and wind to oil and natural gas) and asked where the U.S. should invest money in energy development, respondents showed a strong preference for renewables.
How we manage our public lands, which total more than 643 million acres (or roughly 1 million square miles), in important ways demonstrates our disposition as a nation, and increasingly, that disposition seems to favor a clean energy future.
Yet, we live in a time when the outdoor recreation, conservation, and oil and gas industries are often at odds, and the Department of the Interior and its Secretary are challenged with managing and stewarding our nation’s resources more thoughtfully and carefully than ever before, especially as both the Interior and USDA consider how to best implement 2011’s joint Congressional report, “New Energy Frontier: Balanced Energy Development on Federal Lands.”
If the U.S. is serious about national energy security, and especially a clean, prosperous energy future and climate change mitigation, then we must make important decisions about how we use our public lands. In an energy future defined by much greater efficiency and adoption of clean and increasingly affordable and profitable renewables, is oil and gas extraction on public lands appropriate, particularly in light of shifting patterns with how Americans view energy development and how we collectively use our public lands as a nation?
In the present day, how might we shift the landscape so that renewables compete on a level playing field with oil and gas extraction? Current federal oil and gas leases and royalties fail to account for numerous externalities associated with those fuels. (In 2007, federal oil and gas royalties totaled just $2.6 billion.) How could we appropriately monetize renewables development, so that renewables are similarly subsidized to site on appropriately selected public lands—such as with a concentrated solar power array on land that otherwise might host drill rigs? Similarly, how might federal revenues from energy development on public lands be funneled to actually support the kind of clean energy future we’re trying to create? (More than half of such revenues go to the U.S. Treasury; in 2007, a scant $900 million went to the Interior’s NPS Land and Water Conservation Fund.)
As the Interior welcomes its new Secretary, it is perhaps time to sit down and really think about energy development on our public lands, especially considering that the Interior’s BLM manages the leasing on 700 million onshore acres, more subsurface area than the entirety of America’s federal lands and about half of which are believed to contain oil and/or natural gas.
Obama image courtesy of the White House. Colorado National Monument image courtesy of Shutterstock.com. Wyoming oil rigs image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.