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OPINION: BLM’s new oil, gas leasing rule better aligns with Nevada’s climate, health needs

Leslie Vega
Leslie Vega

Public lands in Nevada are a hot topic across the board right now. They're a key character in discussions on everything from solar energy to conservation to mining to housing development. This is why thoughtful, holistic, responsible management approaches for public lands are more important now than ever — especially in a state where 80 percent of land is public land.

Enter the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Rule. Finalized on April 12, this rule will make critical, long-overdue updates to the onshore federal oil and gas leasing program, which will better align oil and gas decisions on public lands with ecosystem and community health needs. 

Many of the current rules that govern oil and gas on public lands are decades-old and prioritize oil and gas leasing and development over important uses such as outdoor recreation, conservation of wildlife habitat and renewable energy deployment. The BLM’s recently enacted reforms will ensure that oil and gas companies pay to clean up their messes and ensure communities receive a fairer return on public resources that companies extract from public lands. In addition to curtailing built-in favoritism for fossil fuel companies, the rule also updates the oil and gas program in ways that help reduce conflicts with wildlife, outdoor recreation and cultural resources. 

Importantly for Nevada, the rule will deprioritize the leasing of lands with little to no oil or gas development potential — something 63 percent of Nevada voters support — and codify the end of noncompetitive leasing, ensuring that more lands can be managed for better uses. The vast majority of Nevada’s public lands lack any potential for oil and gas development — in fact, only 3 percent of Nevada’s leased public land was productive in the last 20 years, and only 0.3 percent of all leases offered since 1953 have ever entered production.

However, oil and gas companies have continued to engage in speculative leasing in Nevada, which rarely results in development but prevents our public lands from being adequately managed for the valuable resources they offer, such as habitat conservation and outdoor recreation. During the past decade, lands with low or no development potential made up two-thirds of the leases sold noncompetitively on federal public lands. Currently, more than 870,000 acres of Nevada’s public lands are burdened with speculative leases. This includes more than 105,000 acres in the Ruby Mountains, which are home to critical big game migration corridors and world-class hunting and fishing. 

Furthermore, the rule will benefit Nevada’s coffers. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the state has lost more than $34 million in revenue during the past decade because of outdated annual rental rates and minimum bid prices. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have raked in record profits. The oil and gas leasing rule — which will codify the increases in rental rates and minimum bids for leases, a fee on nominations and require annual updates to account for inflation — will ensure that Nevadans receive a fairer share from the oil and gas industry’s use of our public lands. 

While few of Nevada’s public lands have potential for oil and gas development, bonding reforms outlined in the rule will help ensure that industry in the state cleans up its own mess. Outdated federal bonding rates have let oil and gas companies off the hook for paying to clean up their messes — leaving communities to foot the bill for cleanup and the responsibility of protecting their lands, waters and neighborhoods from harmful pollution from decaying abandoned oil and gas infrastructure.

Nevadans think this should change: 91 percent of voters support requiring oil and gas companies, not taxpayers, to pay for all cleanup and restoration costs after drilling occurs. Worse yet, the health impacts from oil and gas-caused air pollution — such as increased rates of asthma and respiratory illnesses — are disproportionately borne by low-income, Black, indigenous and people of color communities. By strengthening bonding requirements to ensure that the oil and gas industry cleans up its messes, this rule will curtail harmful air and water pollution from decaying infrastructure, safeguarding public health. 

The Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Rule is one of a set of necessary policy improvements the BLM is pursuing this year that should work as a package, putting public lands to work on the challenges of the 21st century — countering climate impacts and biodiversity loss while safeguarding cultural knowledge and resources and expanding safe, healthy access to nature for all people. 

For far too long, public lands management has prioritized profit for fossil fuel companies over communities’ well-being, clean air and water, healthy ecosystems and BLM public lands themselves. Nevadans deserve better.

I am immensely grateful to the BLM for finalizing the Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Rule, which will ensure that our public lands are managed to benefit our communities.

Leslie Vega is a climate equity policy fellow with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].


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