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How ‘Freeway Revolts’ Helped Create the People’s Environmental Law

In the summer of 1969 a banner hung over a set of condemned homes in what was then the predominantly black and brown Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C. It read, “White man’s roads through black men’s homes.”

Earlier in the year, the District attempted to condemn the houses to make space for a proposed freeway. The plans proposed a 10-lane freeway, a behemoth of a project that would divide the nation’s capital end-to-end and sever iconic Black neighborhoods like Shaw and the U Street Corridor from the rest of the city.

Today, Brookland is not home to an interstate. The community’s protest forced the government to cancel its construction plans. And the activists’ efforts helped spur the passage of a law that gives all people the right to weigh in on projects that affect their communities—a right that is now under attack from the Trump administration and its allies.

Residents taking a stand in Brookland were the latest participants in the “Freeway Revolts,” a multi-decade effort to force federal planners to consider the impacts of large development projects on communities and ecosystems. During and after World War II, 6 million Black people moved from the South to cities in the Midwest and California, drawn by employment opportunities and driven by the violence and poverty of the Jim Crow South. Following this demographic shift and growth in cities across the United States, planners rewrote municipal zoning ordinances and separated residential, commercial, and industrial development. These policies promoted urban sprawl and white flight, which fed the culture of automobile dependency. 

The Freeway Revolts formed alliances across lines of race and socioeconomic status. In D.C., wealthy white residents of Takoma Park and Georgetown allied with middle-class black and brown residents in Brookland. In Seattle, the Black Panthers aligned with the Sierra Club in opposition to highway widening proposals. In San Francisco, Latinx communities joined hands with white residents to protest the Central Freeway’s devastation to homes and communities. These various communities realized how disruptive and destructive these large urban planning projects are to neighborhoods and communities.

Activists demonstrate against proposed freeway construction in San Francisco in 1960. // IMAGE COURTESY OF SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER

Lacking a voice in the development process, residents and community members in cities across the country used tactics that ranged from picketing, petitioning and leafleting to directly occupying facilities. In each case, however, the central message was the same: Government should not ransack homes, divide areas, and introduce new sources of smog and noise pollution without the consent of those affected.

In many places, the protests forced city governments to change their plans, or even led to the removal of freeways that had already been built. At the federal level, the protests helped inspire a law that ensures the people get to weigh in on projects that affect their health, homes, and neighborhoods: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This law has become one of the most important tools to protect communities and our environment—and now, it’s under attack by the Trump administration.

In 1969, after over a decade of relentless pressure and public activism, Congress passed NEPA in a nearly unanimous vote. The aim of the law was to create a national environmental policy that equally weighed environmental impacts and the voices of communities when federal agencies developed infrastructure projects. NEPA was the first law to require the federal government to conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) when embarking on a project. It required the federal government to tell the public what it wanted to develop and establish time for communities to comment and offer environmentally friendlier or less disruptive alternatives; alternatives the government must consider under NEPA.

Community leaders heightened the national consciousness of the effects of environmental degradation on communities throughout the second half of the 20th century. // PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Over the years, it is communities of color—whose efforts made NEPA possible—that have invoked the law when seeking justice. After all, more than half of the people living less than two miles from a toxic waste site in the United States are people of color. Children of color are disproportionately more likely to face the dangerous health effects of lead poisoning. Indigenous communities like the Navajo Nation have been face-to-face with toxic water thanks to the legacy of uranium mining in the Southwest. In the Northern Mariana Islands, indigenous and low-income U.S. citizens are using NEPA to compel the U.S. Navy to consider the effects that artillery, rockets and bombardment will have on their tropical homeland and sacred sites. According to Cinta Kaipat, a resident of the island Saipan, NEPA allows communities to “fight this fight without firing a shot. The military will sit up and hear our voices.”

Right now, communities of color are using NEPA to challenge the Keystone XL pipeline, President Trump’s illegal border wall, waste incinerators in Puerto Rico, intrusive transit plans in Los Angeles, and pollution from the KCI Airport in Kansas City. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana successfully used NEPA to thwart Trump administration’s plans to reopen coal-mining leases on public lands. Ill-conceived development along the I-70 Corridor near Denver stopped thanks to NEPA. It is community voices, not those of polluting and profit-driven corporations with armies of well-paid litigators and lobbyists that are most likely to be excluded or ignored in the decision-making process. And it is their voices that can help stop further division and destruction in our environments if they are made apart of the planning process.

Put simply, the National Environmental Policy Act is a tool to help uplift the people’s environmental voice. That’s why it’s no wonder that the Trump administration and its allies want to stifle it, either by exempting certain proposals from oversight, limiting the length of public comment periods or eliminating public comment altogether.

Communities in the Northern Mariana Islands are using NEPA to challenge the U.S. Navy’s plan to conduct live-fire training on the island of Pågan. // PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN LIN

The spirit that drove communities of color and neighborhood residents throughout the U.S. to hang banners, picket, sit in, and stand up in the 1950s and 1960s is alive today. Even though several communities of color across the nation have been displaced and burdened by pollution because of freeway development projects in the 1960s, NEPA helps to fight against exclusionary and environmentally disruptive planning processes. 

As we fight to end environmental racism, we cannot allow the Trump administration and its allies in Congress to retrench the people’s tools for access to justice. We cannot allow them to limit public comments and continue to shut communities out of the NEPA process. It is through direct action and community engagement that NEPA came to be; safeguarding it gives people more power to be a part of the decisions that determine what happens in their communities.
This article is written by Teju Adisa-Farrar Raul Garcia and was originally published by Earthjustice. 

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Alaskans Emphatically Tell the Army Corps “No Pebble Mine”

More than 900 people gathered to oppose the Pebble Mine yesterday in Anchorage, Alaska. Hundreds rallied outside the Dena’ina convention center where inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held the last of several public hearings on its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Pebble Mine—a gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay.

“Salmon Forever, Pebble Never” was just one of many anti-Pebble chants heard at the rally, which energized around 500 people outside the convention center demonstrating to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble Mine—and the Corps’ reckless rush to permit it.

Inside, indigenous subsistence users, commercial fishermen, sportsmen, scientists, conservationists, business owners, bear-lovers, and concerned citizens testified against both the behemoth Pebble Mine and the Corps’ woefully inadequate draft EIS.

People spoke from the heart, beseeching the Corps to prioritize their communities, culture, lives, and livelihoods over the profits of a foreign mining company.

“Our people have been saying ‘no Pebble Mine’ for over a decade,” said Second Chief for Curyung Tribal Council and Director of Natural Resources for Bristol Bay Native Association Gayla Hoseth. “We are sick and tired of the greed and the lies. Yet we are here again to comment on an inadequate draft EIS based on Pebble’s incomplete application to build a mine in our pristine environment, because we want to protect this last wild salmon run on earth as it exists today, for this generation and for future generations.”

Many commenters echoed that sentiment, noting our obligation to protect Bristol Bay for future generations.

“I’m a fifth-generation commercial fisherman,” said Emily Taylor, a 15-year-old who fishes in the Naknek-Kvichak district every summer. “And the permit I now hold once belonged to my great, great grandmother.” She wants to pass the fishing tradition onto her grandchildren but fears the Pebble Mine will destroy their heritage. “Do you think they’ll ask me about this day? What I did to stop it? I don’t want that to become my reality,” she said, adding that her people had been fighting to stop Pebble her entire life.

Numerous commenters focused on the inadequacies of the draft EIS.

Daniel Schindler, Ph.D. and Professor of Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, described the draft DEIS as junk: “The reality is, if you put garbage into [an EIS] process, you get garbage out of a process. And what we’re looking at here with the Draft EIS is one that distinctly underestimates risks to fish, to water, and to people. It is junk. The draft EIS should be thrown out.”

Other scientists described the draft EIS in similarly negative terms, going so far as to use descriptors such as “lies,” “fantasy,” “fiction,” and “slipshod.”

The Army Corps of Engineers did not allow everyone to testify publicly and closed public comment at 8 pm sharp. The clock ran out on dozens of people still waiting to speak—including two small children who skipped dinner to wait hours for their turn. Instead of listening to everyone who showed up to speak, the Corps directed the public to provide written comments online.

This is just another—albeit egregious—example of how the Corps is unnecessarily fast-tracking the permitting process at the expense of interested stakeholders. The process is broken and the fix is in.

The Corps is accepting public comment until May 30th. Make your voice heard today.

I attended the hearing and gave the following testimony:

My name is Taryn Kiekow Heimer and I am here on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council and our more than 3 million members and activists.

In the last 5 years alone, tailings dams have failed across Brazil, Canada, the United States, and Mexico, killing hundreds of people and leaving a dead zone of polluted water.

Mining companies and regulators alike promised it would never happen. We’re now hearing the same empty promises from Pebble.

The law requires the Army Corps to do more than simply take Pebble at its word.

But the DEIS fails to do so—just like all those failed tailings dams across the world.

First, the DEIS fails to meet the basic requirements of NEPA and the Clean Water Act by fast-tracking the permitting process; by underestimating the long-term risks to people, water, wildlife and fish; by discounting Pebble’s unprecedented water treatment plan; and by ignoring impacts associated with fully developing the Pebble Mine, including the mining district in Bristol Bay that Pebble would ignite.
Second, the DEIS fails the people of Bristol Bay—who overwhelmingly oppose the Pebble Mine. It’s ignored numerous requests to pause the permitting process and extend the public comment period. People in Bristol Bay provided heart-felt testimony asking the Corps to prioritize their communities, culture, lives and livelihoods over the Pebble Mine. How can the Corps make a positive public interest determination when the public overwhelming rejects the mine?
Third, the DEIS fails to ask the biggest question of all: whether Pebble’s mine plan is even feasible. Pebble hasn’t submitted an economic feasibility study like all other mining companies have done before permitting. When the Corps asked for this information in an RFI, Pebble said it couldn’t disclose it without running afoul of Canadian Securities regulations prohibiting investor fraud and misrepresentation. Richard Borden, a 23-year veteran from Rio Tinto with experience in permitting more than 50 mines, did the math and found not only that Pebble, as proposed, is economically infeasible but that is has a net present value of negative $3 billion. Why is this project even going through permitting? A project that isn’t feasible by definition does not meet the LEDPA standard.
Finally, the DEIS fails to address what concerns people the most—a catastrophic dam failure.

Think of what a Pebble Mine disaster would do to Bristol Bay—what it would do to the communities who rely on subsistence fishing, the $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery that supports 14,000 jobs, and the people, businesses, and wildlife that rely on the prolific salmon runs.

We cannot afford to fail in Bristol Bay. I urge you to do the right thing. Listen to the people who would be impacted most, revise this DEIS, and ultimately deny Pebble’s permit application.

Thank you.
Taryn Keikow Heimer is Deputy Director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Marine Mammal Protection Project. 

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Tribes Challenge Final Permit For Toxic Open‐Pit Copper Mine On Sacred Land

TUSCON, AZ (April 10, 2019)  — The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe filed a complaint in U.S. District Court today challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to issue Rosemont Copper Company a permit to commence construction of a massive open-pit copper mine on the eastern flank of the Santa Rita Mountains in the Cienega Creek watershed. The Tribes are represented by Earthjustice, an environmental legal organization.

The creek and its tributaries have supported the tribes and their ancestors since time immemorial. Cienega Creek and its upstream tributaries, including Davidson Canyon, Barrel Canyon and Empire Gulch, contain some of the highest quality streams and wetland ecosystems in Arizona.

Rosemont plans to excavate a mile-wide by half-mile deep open pit mine in Barrel Canyon, discharging an estimated 1.9 billion tons of waste rock onto adjacent public lands. These activities would destroy 18 miles of streams that are protected by the Clean Water Act. None of these activities can occur without a permit from the Corps.

Male jaguar photographed by motion-detection wildlife cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains on August 31, 2015 as part of a Citizen Science jaguar monitoring project conducted by the University of Arizona, in coordination with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is the same jaguar that has been repeatedly photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains.

“One of the primary reasons that the Pascua Yaqui Tribe opposes this mine is its impacts upon our water.” said Chairman Robert Valencia of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. “The Pascua Yaqui Tribe knows that water is precious in the desert and precious to all the plants and animals that depend upon it. The few short-term jobs that this mine will create are not worth the destruction that we will have to live with forever.”

For over eight years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pima County, and an overwhelming majority of the public joined the Tribes in opposing the permit for the mine, citing unacceptable adverse impacts on the ecosystems and severe and irreparable harm to tribal cultural resources.

“As a result of the Hopi people’s long history in the Southwest, we understand the importance of water,” said Vice Chairman Clark W. Tenakhongva of the Hopi Tribe. “Culturally any body of water is something precious and sacred and it would be culturally irresponsible for us to support any activity that would jeopardize a resource so essential to all living beings and something on which we all depend.”

Due to the unacceptable adverse impacts of the mine on aquatic and cultural resources, the Corps’ Los Angeles District Office refused to grant a permit for the mine in 2016. The Corps’ South Pacific Division, however, reversed course and granted Rosemont the permit earlier last month.

“The Corps’ South Pacific Division has provided no reasoned basis for reversing course and abruptly granting Rosemont a 404 permit,” said Earthjustice attorney Stu Gillespie. “EPA and the Corps’ District Office concluded that the proposed permit would violate the Clean Water Act and cause unacceptable harm to the public interest. The Corps cannot sweep these concerns under the rug in its rush to permit this devastating project.”

Rosemont plans to begin excavating and removing ancestral villages and burial sites in the near future. Its plans include the use of backhoe trenches, mechanical stripping, and shovel stripping to remove all cultural artifacts from the mine site, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of cultural patrimony.

“The proposed mine would forever destroy our ancestor’s burial sites, and structures they inhabited in the Santa Rita Mountains,” said Austin Nunez, chairman of the St. Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “The mine would also erode evidence of our ancestors’ prior occupation in that area and destroy the plant life and watershed in the area. The long term environmental consequences that will come from the Rosemont Mine project development far outweigh the short-term financial gains sought by the company and its shareholders.”

The complaint states that in issuing the permit, the Corps violated the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Tribes are represented by Stuart C. Gillespie and Caitlin Miller, attorneys for Earthjustice.

Read the legal document.

About the Pascua Yaqui Tribe: The Pascua Yaqui Tribe is a federally recognized tribe of approximately 22,000 enrolled members with a reservation southwest of Tucson, Arizona.

About the Hopi Tribe: The Hopi Tribe is a federally recognized Indian tribe located in northeastern Arizona with approximately 14,475 members. The Hopi reservation occupies part of Coconino and Navajo counties, encompasses more than 1.5 million acres, and comprises twelve villages situated on three mesas.

About the Tohono O’odham Nation: The Tohono O’odham Nation is a federally recognized tribe of approximately 35,000 enrolled members, with more than 2.8 million acres of reservation lands in Southern and Central Arizona.

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Taking the “Public” Out of Public Lands

It’s not enough that 90 percent of public lands are open to oil and gas exploitation. The fossil fuel industry wants more from the Trump administration. They just got it.

In the latest insult to America’s public lands, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently issued a directive that guts environmental review and public scrutiny to speed oil and gas development. This effort, part of President Trump’s push to ramp up fracking and drilling across America, is intended to remove any “burdens” to the fossil fuel industry.

In the process, Trump and Zinke are taking the public out of public lands, ceding control of millions of acres to industry while keeping the title in the hands of Americans, who have less and less say over how these lands are managed.

Here’s what the latest directive will do:

Eliminate public input, environmental review and disclosure of harms from oil and gas projects before lands are leased,
Slash the time the public has to raise objections and concerns to just 10 days, reduced from 30 days,
End designation of “master leasing plans,” which aim to steer fracking and drilling away from communities, cultural artifacts, endangered species, recreational and other sensitive lands,
And discourage public land managers from taking any land off the auction block, even if those lands contain sensitive resources and wildlife habitat.

Trump and Zinke are essentially privatizing America’s public lands ― ensuring energy extraction is the top priority and letting the fossil fuel industry call the shots.

Private oil and gas companies already control more than 27 million acres of public land. They also tell the Bureau of Land Management (usually anonymously) which public lands they want put up for auction. This new directive makes clear that, under Trump, the BLM’s job is to give these wealthy private interests what they want.

An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity shows there’s been no meaningful environmental review, disclosure of harms or public engagement regarding nearly 200,000 acres of public lands in six Western states scheduled to be auctioned off during the first half of 2018.

From Utah’s petroglyph-dotted canyons to Colorado mountain meadows to Wyoming’s sagebrush country, there appears to be no limit to the fossil fuel industry’s appetite for extraction and the Trump administration’s willingness to bend over backwards for these polluting companies.

To Trump and Zinke, this is eliminating “burdens” for industry. To the owners of America’s public lands ― all Americans and generations to come ― it’s about harming wildlife, clean air and water, natural wonders and the places they love. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, westerners say protecting public lands and preserving access to the outdoors should be the Trump administration’s priority.

But under this latest directive, the public will be largely shut out. People will learn about a fracking pad at their favorite campsite when they see the trucks roll in.

Zinke dismisses the need to determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of fracking and drilling, saying that’s already considered in broader agency land and resource management plans.

But that’s not true.

Management plans can cover millions of acres and are completed before companies decide where they want to lease. BLM defends these plans by promising that analyses of specific areas to be leased will come later and will publicly disclose environmental harms from development. Now, that later will never come.

That means no review showing how drilling and fracking will worsen air quality, including increases in smog that leads to asthma attacks in children.

It means no information about how much fresh water will be polluted or depleted from drinking water supplies, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs and underground aquifers.

And it means no disclosure about what will happen to the polluted water created by fracking. Fracking operations often re-inject this chemical-laden water back underground, which can contaminate aquifers.

There won’t even be an analysis of possible alternatives to reduce harms from drilling or fracking.

The public will be left in the dark and silenced while their public lands continue to be plundered.

Trump and Zinke may want to brush aside these “burdens,” but the law says otherwise. This is another hasty, illegal Trump administration decision to benefit corporations, at the expense of the public, that should be overturned in court.

Randi Spivak is the public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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NRDC Sues U.S. DOT as the Gateway Project Stalls

With the government shutdown over, at least for now, NRDC, on January 28, 2019, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York under the Freedom of Information Act. The reason? To find out why the Trump administration has prevented the Environmental Impact Statement for the Hudson Tunnel—part of the urgently needed Gateway Project—from being published.

Despite the President’s call for faster environmental reviews of projects, the White House seems to have subverted the review process to slow down a project he doesn’t want to move forward.

A major, and probably the most critical project for the nation’s economy, is building a new tunnel under the Hudson River. According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the existing tunnel, over 100 years old, suffered serious damage during Hurricane Sandy, and its replacement is critical for the health of our economy. When the tunnel needs to be closed for safety reasons, as it did after Sandy, the cost to the economy is estimated at over $100 million a day.
Timeline of Events
The environmental analysis of the Gateway project was slated to be completed on March 30, 2018, according to the White House website, which was perfectly in step with the President’s demand that project reviews be finished in no more than two years.

All was well, everything was apparently on time, but then the Department of Transportation went mum. Despite it now being 10 months later, the March 30th date had, until recently, still been listed as the deadline with no new notations added. Over the past six weeks, the deadline and status dates were recently removed from government dashboards.

NRDC, which supports the Tunnel’s construction and recognizes its necessity, requested last spring that the Department of Transportation provide an update on the status of the project. Crickets. In September, we filed a Freedom of Information Request, which required by law a response from the agency in 30 days. Crickets.

The major concern centers on how the Trump administration may have stymied the environmental review process – jeopardizing the economy of the New York region and the nation.
NEPA—National Environmental Policy Act
The administration often plays fast and loose with the facts dealing with NEPA, which is designed to ensure decisions made by federal agencies consider environmental impacts. The administration has previously highlighted three projects as “evidence” for proposing radical changes to the environmental review process—in the name of “speeding up,” but really steamrolling, the review process. Their rationale was categorically false, and we called their bluff.

Now, the administration is changing its tune—apparently slowing down the NEPA process, at the expense of millions of rail users.

Make no mistake, NEPA is essential to ensuring that federal projects consider the environmental impact of their actions and give the public a chance to comment on the effects of a proposed project. In this case, the Hudson Tunnel will improve the environment and decrease carbon pollution by preventing commuters and Amtrak users from being diverted to polluting airplanes and automobiles.

One of the many false statements in the State of the Union last year was that it takes 10 years to perform environmental reviews to build a simple road. But a White House study shows that most environmental reviews, even for the biggest project, takes much closer to the goal of two years. Ironically, the critic who gave the President the idea of “Two years not 10” said of this project:

“The importance of Gateway is undeniable. There are no serious arguments against the project. Nor are there any serious alternatives. Delay in starting work will only raise costs, drag down the regional economy, and cause environmental harm.”

This FOIA lawsuit should lead to the public knowing the truth—and this urgently needed project moving forward once and for all.

 
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) works to safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.

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The Interior Department Is Using Faulty Logic to Justify New Oil Projects

The Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s north coast is bitter cold, packed with marine life, and underlain with millions of gallons of oil. Since the 1980s, oil companies have targeted a shallow area five miles from shore—between Prudhoe Bay, once North America’s most productive oil field, and the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the country—to build an oil and gas production facility, the first in Alaska’s federal waters. But they were stymied by technical problems, ever-expanding budget estimates, and regulatory concerns.

Now, as the Trump administration pursues oil and gas development with fervor, drilling there might finally happen. In October, after Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Company acquired a lease to the land, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, signed off on a plan to develop the site, known as the Liberty Energy Project. If Hilcorp decides to go forward with the project, the company will build a nine-acre gravel island six miles offshore to base their operations and bury a seven-mile pipeline under the seafloor to connect the extracted oil and natural gas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

To gain approval for major energy projects like this one, U.S. law requires that BOEM take stock of how the project would affect the environment. The resulting document, known as an environmental impact statement, details the risks that proposed infrastructure and a potential oil spill might pose to the region’s caribou herds, breeding shorebirds, polar bears, and passing bowhead whales, as well as the project’s impact on water and air quality, including climate change.

However, if you look carefully at the section on the environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emissions for the Liberty Project (on page 4-52), the agency draws a surprising conclusion: That extracting 120 million barrels of oil from beneath the Arctic Ocean over the project’s 15-to-20-year lifetime would reduce global carbon emissions, and by no small amount. According to the agency, developing Liberty would save more than 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—or the equivalent carbon pollution emitted by 5.3 million cars over a year. In other words, the report determines that transporting and dumping gravel in the ocean to construct an artificial island, drilling into the seafloor to capture buried oil, and extracting some 70,000 barrels of the stuff each day at peak production is better for Earth’s climate than doing nothing at all.

Endicott Island is a 45-acre manmade gravel island, constructed in 1987, used as an offshore drilling platform off Prudhoe Bay in state waters in the Beaufort Sea. If Hilcorp Energy goes forward with the Liberty Energy Project, the company would construct a similar, but smaller, nine-acre gravel island to drill for oil beneath the seafloor in federal waters. Photo: James P. Blair/National Geographic Image Collection

“That’s just a crazy, crazy analysis,” says Jeremy Lieb, an attorney at Earthjustice, a non-profit legal firm that focuses on environmental issues. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity and a host of other conservation groups represented by Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior, which oversees BOEM, on the grounds that the agency’s environmental analysis of the Liberty Project distorts the damages associated with drilling and ignores basic economic principles. “It appears to be a convenient way for agencies to rationalize that any individual project will have essentially no effect on global greenhouse gas emissions,” Lieb says.

The use of a model that undersells carbon emissions appears to be a directive coming from inside the Department of Interior. When Audubonasked Frances Mann, a BOEM biologist who worked on the environmental impact statement for the Liberty Project, about the climate analysis, she said, “we used the models that we were required to use.”

The BOEM report reasons that in place of oil coming out of the Arctic, nearly the same amount of oil would be produced elsewhere in the world from places with “comparatively weaker environmental protection standards” and “increased emissions from transportation,” according to the federal document.

A Spectacled Eider lifts off from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Trump administration is aggressively pushing plans to drill for oil and gas. In a recently released environmental impact statement for that project, the Interior Department used debunked models for calculating the climate impact of the project, an effort one economist described as an intentional obfuscation. Photo: Peter Mather/National Geographic Image Collection

This assumes that any oil not extracted in the Arctic would be replaced with foreign oil that uses dirtier methods and costs more to transport, ultimately emitting more carbon. That logic requires some economic gymnastics, says Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts University who specializes in energy and climate policy. “I just don’t find it credible,” he says. It’s more likely that Arctic oil would be replaced by oil from fracked wells in the United States, like those common in North Dakota and Texas, rather than overseas oil, Metcalf says. What’s more, producing oil in the Arctic is no pristine operation—it emits more carbon than oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a 2015 report released by the Carnegie Foundation, because of the difficulties of extracting oil in such harsh conditions.

The analysis makes another error, says Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international research and policy non-profit organization. Basic economic models show that when more oil is produced in the United States, more oil is bought and combusted internationally. That’s because when there’s more oil on the market, prices drop—simple supply-and-demand economics. The Liberty Project analysis, and others, don’t fully take this effect into account, he says; they ignore the fact that the extraction of fossil fuels actually increases global carbon emissions.

“The underlying assumption is very common,” Erickson says. For years, including before Trump took office, government reports failed to account for the likely increase in consumption. Erickson first flagged the error in the analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline, writing in a 2014 Nature Climate Change report that the State Department underestimated the project’s overall emissions—the difference between releasing up to 27 million tons of carbon dioxide annually and up to 110 million tons. “There was this sort of giant blind spot,” Erickson says.

BOEM also miscalculated carbon emissions in its draft analysis of Arctic and Atlantic offshore oil drilling in 2016, he says. After that, though, the agency seemed to learn from its mistakes. In November 2016, a BOEM report found that halting new drilling projects over five years would lower foreign oil consumption by billions of barrels. This could decrease global carbon emissions by up to 2.3 billion tons, Erickson estimates, more carbon than the entire U.S. transportation sector emits in a year.

If Hilcorp goes forward with the Liberty Project, it will bury a seven-mile pipeline under the seafloor to carry extracted oil and gas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, shown here. It takes around 12 days for oil and gas to move from Prudhoe Bay through more than 800 miles of above-ground pipe built in Alaska’s wilderness to the endpoint at Valdez Marine Terminal. Photo: Dermot Tatlow/Panos Pictures/R​edux

This argument has held up in court. In 2017, a federal judge struck down another flawed emissions analysis conducted by the Bureau of Land Management on a coal project in Colorado. “She said very specifically [that] it’s irrational to say increase in supply is not going to increase consumption,” Erickson says.

Yet despite increased recognition of the problem, the Liberty Project environmental impact statement relies on debunked reasoning to conclude that developing the site would result in lower carbon emissions. This is an intentional move on the part of the Interior Department, Erickson says. “It’s not a misguided model; it’s a purposeful misuse of the model,” he says. “It’s enabling their decision and their allowance to expand the fossil fuel supply.”

Federal agencies continue to use the same flawed model in analyses of other new energy projects. A draft report detailing how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would impact the environment, released December 20 by the Bureau of Land Management, also failed to account for the global increase in emissions from development. “It appears as if [the Bureau of Land Management] is purposefully obfuscating the question of the global oil market and CO2 emissions implications,” Erickson told Audubon over email.

This comes at a time when the world needs to reduce carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe, according to a recent United Nations report—and yet emissions continue to accelerate. Halting fossil fuel expansion is the only way to reduce carbon emissions in a meaningful way, Erickson says. “The climate problem is a fossil fuel problem. There’s no debate around that.”

This story was originally published on Audubon.org. Audubon is a nonprofit dedicated to saving birds and the places they need today and tomorrow. For more stories from Audubon magazine or to learn about Audubon’s conservation work, visit the Audubon website.

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Senate Committee Pushes McNamee FERC Nomination Forward, Driven by Millions in Fossil Fuel Money

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee voted on Tuesday to push the controversial nomination of Bernard McNamee for Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to the full Senate, on a mostly party-line vote.

McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries. His resume reads like a who’s who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.

McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded “Life: Powered,” a project launched by the group in 2015 “to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan,” according to TPPF’s 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how “the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition.”

Joe Manchin joined Republicans in voting for McNamee, 13-10, even in spite of a recent video that shows McNamee criticizing renewable energy and expressing strong support for the sole use of fossil fuels – as well as describing environmental advocacy as “tyranny.” This vote serves to underscore a continuing problem in Washington: that a nominee who, on the record, has showed significant bias toward the fossil fuel industry, is lauded and promoted by Senators to lead the very agency where he is expected to remain impartial.

The 13 Senators who voted in the Committee to move McNamee’s nomination forward have taken a combined total of nearly $10 million from the fossil fuel industry – bought and paid for by an industry that accelerates the climate crisis and only cares about protecting their profits. It is evident that fossil fuel money is both crippling our democracy and destroying our climate, influencing the structural branches of government that regulate our nation’s infrastructure and energy supply.

The key numbers breakdown:

Combined fossil fuel contributions to Senators voting for McNamee: nearly $10,000,000
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting for McNamee: $755,219
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting against McNamee: $88,682

That works out to more than 8 times the dirty energy money taken by those voting in favor of McNamee’s nomination than the average of those voting against the clearly fossil-biased pick. Today’s vote moving McNamee’s nomination forward shows that the industry’s grip on Washington politics is still suffocating our democracy. McNamee will go before the Senate next month for a full vote on his nomination, where we will have one more chance to push against the industry’s influence and prevent McNamee from becoming the next Commissioner of FERC.

 

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EPA Clouds Transparency for Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to stop the combination of letter and numeral grades for evaluating Environmental Impact Statements prepared by the federal agencies. The two-factor grading system graded both the quality of the analysis and the actual level of environmental impact. This change will dim the transparency of the federal agencies’ work. This new policy will make it much harder for the public or press to judge early-on the seriousness of environmental impacts of the project and the quality of the agencies’ analysis of that impact. There’s a simple analogy: What if we got rid of grades in schools?

Teacher Ben:
“Well class, as you requested, we will no longer grade your final examinations. However, we will continue to put comments in the margins of your exams where we think more work is needed. We will not send a letter grades to your parents but will send them a copy of your final essay with our comments in the margins.”
Who does this help? Bueller?

Since 1984 EPA have evaluated environmental impact statements of federal agencies for both the adequacy of the NEPA documentation and the actual level of environmental impacts. They also make specific comments to the environmental analysis.  They will continue with specific comments but no longer have a clear summary grade.

The EPA website lists the grading options (reprinted before the material is deleted from the EPA website):
EPA has developed a set of criteria for rating a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). EPA rates the draft EIS on an alpha-numeric system and includes the designated rating in EPA’s comment letter. In general, the rating is based on the lead agency’s preferred alternative. The rating system provides a basis upon which EPA makes recommendations to the lead agency for improving the draft EIS. The alphabetical categories listed below signify EPA’s evaluation of the environmental impacts of the proposal: 
LO (Lack of Objections)
EC (Environmental Concerns)
EO (Environmental Objections)
​EU (Environmentally Unsatisfactory)
The numerical categories listed below signify an evaluation of the adequacy of the draft EIS: 
1 (Adequate)
2 (Insufficient Information)
3 (Inadequate)
The rating of the draft EIS consists of one of the category combinations shown below:
LO
EC-1, EC-2
EO-1, EO-2, EO-3
​EU-1, EU-2, EU-3, or 3
https://www.epa.gov/nepa/environmental-impact-statement-rating-system-criteria
(October 26, 2018)
The combined letter-numerical system was simple, edifying and useful to the press and public.

On October 22, however, EPA announced it would end the grading policy. Before announcing this abrupt change of this Reagan Administration policy, EPA did not talk to environmental advocates, project sponsors, states, tribes or other affected groups. EPA did get input from—using my analogy—the students—the federal agencies, who thought dropping the grading system was a swell idea. Better to hide inadequately prepared environmental reviews as well as the seriousness of the likely environmental impacts? Agencies argued that grading was inconsistent among EPA Regions but that issue exists in almost all grading that are not true-false or multiple choice. 

The National Environmental Policy Act is a foundational environmental statute meant to give the public a chance to comment and understand what the federal government is doing an action that may significantly impact the environment or their community. Making this material accessible is very important. The Trump administration and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, evidently think differently. Now, affected communities will not have a heads-up from environmental experts at EPA on the seriousness of the environmental threat unless they trudge through the high technical comments of the EPA and the often-technical language in the environmental review.

EPA is still required by Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to evaluate and send comments on the EISs to the agency responsible. Under law, EPA must still forward projects that would have an unsatisfactory environmental impact to the Council of Environmental Quality but the memo announcing this new policy noted that such a referral would be “rare.” The original plan, outlined in President Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, was to repeal the Clean Air Act provision thereby eliminating both the EPA review and consequently the referral to CEQ for projects that had an unsatisfactory environmental impacts. Removing the grading system is their Option B.

 
Scott Slesinger is Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  

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An Environmental Audit of Trump’s NAFTA Deal

The NAFTA deal between the U.S. and Mexico would encourage further outsourcing of pollution and jobs, offer special handouts to notorious corporate polluters, lock in fossil fuel dependency, and extend Trump’s polluting legacy for years after he has left office. It not only fails to mention climate change – it would prolong NAFTA’s contribution to the climate crisis. Despite progress on a few fronts, the deal fails to adequately protect wildlife, clean air and water, or the health of communities that NAFTA has exposed to toxic pollution.

During the NAFTA negotiations, leading U.S. environmental groups outlined minimum changes that must be made to NAFTA to halt the deal’s environmental damage. See here for these minimum environmental criteria.  

A review of the text of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada deal reveals that it falls far short of these baseline criteria and would pose significant threats to our air, water, and climate. In short, the deal:

Supports further outsourcing of toxic pollution and jobs: The deal’s lack of binding environmental standards would allow more corporations to evade U.S. environmental policies by shifting jobs and toxic pollution to Mexico, where environmental policies are weaker. For example, the lack of any binding lead pollution standards means that corporations would still enjoy NAFTA’s incentives to dump their lead waste in Mexico, which has contributed to job loss in the U.S. and toxic lead poisoning in border communities.
Denies climate change: The deal fails to even mention climate change. This denialism leaves intact NAFTA’s incentives for corporations to dodge the hard-fought clean energy policies of U.S. states by moving to Mexico, eliminating jobs and perpetuating climate pollution. This climate loophole only reinforces the U.S.’s status as the world’s largest outsourcer of climate pollution.
Rolls back the environmental standards of past trade deals: The deal takes a significant step backwards from the environmental protections included in the last four U.S. trade deals by failing to reinforce a standard set of seven Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) that protect everything from wetlands to sea turtles. The deal includes standard enforcement language for only one of the seven MEAs, while using weak language for two MEAs and failing to even mention four of these essential environmental agreements.
Includes weak environmental terms: The environment chapter is primarily filled with non-binding terms that mirror the weak words of the polluter-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership. For example, the text “recognizes that air pollution is a serious threat to public health,” but then fails to include a single binding rule to reduce the air pollution that NAFTA has exacerbated. Much of the language appears designed to greenwash the deal, not to rectify NAFTA’s threats to wildlife, ecosystems, or clean air and water.
Copies a failed enforcement system: Even the strongest language will only be effective if enforced. The deal essentially replicates the same failed environmental enforcement mechanism from past U.S. trade agreements. Not once has the U.S. used this mechanism in past trade deals to bring a case against a U.S. trade partner for environmental abuses, despite widely documented violations.
Offers a dangerous handout to Chevron and ExxonMobil: The deal makes progress in curtailing the overreaching corporate rights in NAFTA’s “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) system…but then uniquely offers those egregious rights to notorious corporate polluters. This special handout is available to all U.S. oil and gas corporations that have, or may at some point have, government contracts for offshore drilling, fracking, oil and gas pipelines, refineries, or other polluting activities in Mexico. That means, for example, that Chevron and ExxonMobil – the two largest corporate climate polluters in history and repeat users of ISDS – would be allowed to challenge environmental protections in Mexico by relying on the same broad corporate rights that they have used to successfully challenge public interest policies from Ecuador to Canada.
Encourages fracking: The deal preserves a NAFTA rule that effectively bars the U.S. government from determining whether gas exports to Mexico are in the public interest. This automatic gas export guarantee facilitates increased fracking in the U.S., expansion of cross-border gas pipelines, and growing dependency on climate-polluting gas in Mexico.
Offers corporate polluters a new way to weaken environmental policies: The deal’s “good regulatory practices” rules could give corporate polluters a new way to delay, weaken, or halt new environmental regulations. The rules offer corporations extra opportunities to challenge proposed regulations before they are finalized, and to ask that existing regulations be repealed. These deregulatory rules could make it harder to reverse the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks once Trump leaves office, which could extend his polluting legacy for years.

 
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The Royalty Policy Committee: What You Need to Know

Looking to Thursday’s Royalty Policy Committee meeting in Denver, Colorado, one thing that is evidently clear is this “federal committee” is now completely and unapologetically at the beck and call of the oil and gas industry. After guiding the swift passing of recommendations over the course of the last three meetings that gifted fossil fuel interests with a hall pass to environmental review, former Chairman Vincent DeVito has left his post at the RPC to take a position with an offshore oil company.

Even further concerning, is the noticeable connection between the RPC recommendations – which are clearly influenced by industry lobbyists – and the recent actions taken by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In the days, dare we say minutes following the last RPC meeting in Albuquerque, the BLM released an information bulletin (IB) directing BLM field offices to prioritize approving applications for drilling by finding ways to avoid environmental review and involving the public – undermining the agency’s mission and responsibility to the public. Notably, the committee closed the last meeting by announcing this IB had been posted, shortly after the Onshore Working Group had presented their recommendations which mirrored the BLM’s announcement.

Unfortunately, we are likely to continue to see this industry heavy hand play out in the upcoming RPC meeting, with a recommendation that lets industry dictate where they are going to drill, as opposed to applying for a permit and letting the BLM give them permission. And as if this all could not be enough to handle, the meeting comes amidst a leasing flurry by the Trump administration, including a controversial plan to lease Colorado’s North Fork Valley, a premier sustainable farming region in the state, for expanded fracking and drilling.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of Thursday’s meeting:
What is the Royalty Policy Committee?
The Royalty Policy Committee (RPC) was formed to advise the Secretary of the Interior on royalty management issues and protect taxpayers by ensuring the public receives the full value of the natural resources produced from federal lands.

It was established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) which, while recognizing the merits of seeking the advice and assistance of our nation’s citizens, aims to assure that the advice is relevant, objective, and open to the public, and efficient with appropriate records and within reasonable cost. The FACA requires that committee memberships be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” However, this committee is clearly not, with groups filing a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for violating FACA.
What has happened since the last gathering of the RPC?
The last full committee meeting of the RPC was held in Albuquerque, in June. Here are some of the most noteworthy actions that have happened since then:

Revolving door spinning between Interior and industry. Vincent DeVito, who was assigned by Secretary Zinke to staff and oversee the Royalty Policy Committee left his role to join an offshore oil and gas company, Cox Oil Offshore LLC. While DeVito was chair of the RPC, the Offshore Oil & Gas Workgroup recommended DOI lower the royalty rate for offshore drilling, despite that taxpayers would lose out on billions over the life of the lease if the rate were lowered. Replacing DeVito is Scott Angelle, the Director of the Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement. This agency is tasked with overseeing offshore oil and gas safety, yet Angelle’s past has focused on expanding and increasing offshore drilling, including leading the push to lift the moratorium on Gulf Coast drilling put in place after the BP oil spill. Notably, elsewhere at Interior, Secretary Zinke’s Deputy Chief of Staff Downey Magallanes, who led the agency’s efforts to shrink protected national monuments in Utah, left Interior last month for a position at BP.
DOI starts leasing bonanza. DOI has been setting in motion policies and plans that would grease the wheels for massive, indiscriminate oil and gas leasing on public lands. The results are coming to life this September and December, with millions of acres up for lease, and will have impacts for decades to come. To put the sales into perspective, the proposed 2.4 million acres are about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, or the size of the entire Yellowstone National Park, and may will be sold at bottom dollar prices. Parcels near Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona were leased just this week for only $2/acre.
Arctic drilling moves forward. Arctic drilling moving forward. At a previous meeting, the Alaska Specific RPC Workgroup recommended DOI rush to hold a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. DOI has wasted no time, initiating scoping for an environmental impact statement on the proposed sale and moving forward with a seismic testing plan. If the seismic plan moves forward, massive ‘shaker trucks’ would be allowed into the Refuge as early as this December to conduct testing, over the objection of Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. It remains unclear if DOI will give the public an opportunity to weigh in.
DOI expected to repeal methane rule, wasting taxpayer dollars. The administration has indicated they will fully repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste and Prevention Rule later this month, which was established to reduce wasted natural gas from oil and gas operations on public lands and estimated to save taxpayers $800 million over the next decade. A group of 24 different conservation organizations have signed onto a letter that was submitted as a public comment for the upcoming RPC meeting. The letter aims to center a discussion on the continuing revenue lost due to natural gas waste on public lands and highlight the fact that the RPC doesn’t have any plans to address this issue.
New BLM guidance mirrors RPC recommendations. At the most recent meeting of the committee in Albuquerque, the RPC reviewed and approved three recommendations to reduce environmental review of oil and gas activities. Notably, one proposal recommended requiring all Bureau of Land Management field offices to issue Categorical Exclusions (CX) from National Environmental Policy Act review for certain drilling activities. Before the ink was even dry on this recommendation, the BLM issued an Information Bulletin to its field offices to expedite the processing of drilling permits and directing that “ to comply with NEPA in the most expeditious and appropriate manner, the BLM should first consider whether other avenues for NEPA compliance are available before preparing a new EA or a new EIS.”

A second proposal recommended that BLM limit environmental review required on wells drilled into federal minerals from private or state land. Existing policy already limits the contexts in which NEPA applies, but also recognizes that the presence of federal minerals may require environmental review, as application of the Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act. Just a week after the meeting, BLM issued a new instruction memorandum on directional drilling into federal mineral estate from well pads on non-federal locations.
What will the RPC be putting forward as recommendations in Denver?
The recommendations the RPC has entertained to date would benefit companies, not taxpayers, and that will unfortunately continue at the Colorado meeting.

Give industry free reign to drill. The Planning, Analysis and Competitiveness Subcommittee is recommending that DOI create a pilot project to allow industry to simply notify BLM when they want to start drilling rather than have BLM affirmatively approve an application for a permit to drill (ADP) as is the current law. This is similar to a proposal industry is pushing in Congress via H.R. 6088.

As for its rationale for this pilot, the RPC recommendation points to “backlogs” in permitting at two BLM field offices, the Buffalo Field Office in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico. These are two of the busiest field offices in the country. If there is a “backlog” in permitting, it is more often a result of operator caused delays than of BLM staff inaction. Imposing time limits and “streamlining” the process should not help applicants who simply do not submit complete and accurate information to the BLM in the first place. BLM’s analysis of permit times shows that much of the delay is because the operator doesn’t submit a complete application.

Removing government review of site-specific applications puts at risk surface land owners, communities, wildlands and other values that can be harmed by oil and gas infrastructure and development.

Let companies set their own prices. The Fair Return and Valuation Subcommittee is recommending that DOI pursue a rulemaking to transfer the authority to set a value for public minerals from the Interior to private parties, essentially allowing producers to determine their own valuation methods for the coal, oil and gas they are drilling. This would undoubtedly result in the public not receiving fair value for the resources they own and would diminish transparency: producers could simply claim that their valuation methods are proprietary and should be kept secret.

What should the Royalty Policy Committee be recommending?
Current leasing and royalty practices are providing hidden subsidies to fossil fuel companies. This contributes to unfair compensation for the American public, and can tie up federal lands, often for decades—which means they’re neither being developed for energy nor managed for other uses that may be even more suitable for those lands, like conservation or recreation.

To encourage DOI to fix some of these problems, The Wilderness Society submitted a  petition last fall under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) asking for reform of the oil and gas leasing program. The APA gives citizens the right to request action from a federal agency to issue, repeal, or amend a rule, and entitles them to a prompt response. However, our petition has gone unanswered from the DOI to date.

But, if the Royalty Policy Committee needs a place to start, we recommend they consider our petition, which points out how the current oil and gas leasing system is broken and proposes solutions to protect American taxpayers:

Inadequate reclamation bonds. These bonds should provide funding for cleaning up the damage to public lands from oil and gas development, but the funds required are nowhere near sufficient.
Leasing of low-potential lands. These lands are less likely to be developed.
Lengthy and lax lease suspensions. Federal leases are issued for ten years—longer than most leases issued by states or private parties—so the industry already has ample time to develop leased lands. The current system is simply providing even more ways to extend leases without revenue or development. As a result, BLM has failed to recover more than $82 million of rental payments, with more than 3.38 million acres of federal minerals in suspension.
Below-market royalty rates. Royalty rates are currently only 12.5 percent, far lower than state and private land rates.
Below-market rent. Oil and gas producers pay only a dollar and change annually for each acre leased.
Low minimum-lease bids. At just $2 per acre at a sale, these bids allow oil and gas companies to purchase and tie up lands they do not intend to use. A meaningful bid would incentivize purchases where companies intend to generate energy and revenue for the American taxpayer.
Unjustified reinstatements of lapsed leases. Even after leases are cancelled due to failures to pay rent, it is relatively easy for companies to get them put back in place through a “reinstatement” process, giving them another way to continue to benefit from public lands without either developing energy or providing a return to taxpayers.

 
This article was originally published by The Wilderness Society. 

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