When it comes to boating in the upper Colorado River Basin, there’s no better place than Dinosaur National Monument. A multi-day river trip in Dinosaur starts on the Green or Yampa — both wholly unique from one another in form and hydrology, yet each providing world-class recreational opportunities and scenery.
The more time I’ve spent on these rivers, the more my focus has been drawn to how we manage the lands around them. If there’s one direct threat to the greater landscape around Dinosaur, it’s the outdated laws and regulations of the Bureau of Land Management’s Oil and Gas Program. However, the bureau has recently proposed a rule package that would start to address some of the imbalance in its current management of public lands.
Dinosaur National Monument is a place where these rules could really make a difference. It is a unique landscape, in that it’s bisected by the political boundaries of Colorado and Utah, each having starkly different physical and economic relationships with the Monument. Craig is at the forefront of communities in Colorado moving away from coal and proactively planning for increased recreation; Vernal, Utah was the birthplace of western river running and the hub of Utah’s most active oil and gas region, the Uinta Basin.
In the 1950s the country was embroiled in the idea of building a large dam, deep in the confines of Dinosaur National Monument that would have flooded the canyons and squandered the natural and cultural heritage for all future generations. That fight brought about the modern ideals of protecting wild places into the American mainstream. Today, the concept of wilderness — flawed, imperfect, but noble, eloquent and right — must evolve. To protect special places like Dinosaur means protecting the integrity of lands all around them.
Like the priority system of water allocation, the general mining law and other tenets of capitalism, the oil and gas program is shaped by the industry it’s intended to regulate. For example, of all lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, 90% are open to oil and gas leasing, with energy development being prioritized above all other land uses.
This is clearly evident south of Dinosaur in the Uinta Basin. Tens of thousands of wells tap the land, representing a lack of restraint of long term vision, to say nothing of the looming challenge of curbing fossil fuel emissions. The bureau’s mission explicitly states the need to “meet the present and future needs of the American people.” While energy development has brought short-term wealth to these communities, it’s also brought the worst air quality in the nation at times, painful episodes of boom and bust; and it certainly doesn’t serve our future.
The federal oil and gas program desperately needs to be modernized. The programs are full of subsidies, loopholes and policies that favor the oil and gas industry. Americans lose billions of dollars in revenue annually, allowing the industry to stockpile million acres of unused leases. Not only should we raise the cost to drill on public lands, but we should hold companies responsible for the cost of cleanup and end the leasing of lands with low or no potential for oil and gas.
One example sits directly on the western edge of Dinosaur National Monument, a set of exploratory oil wells overlapping wildlands full of cultural remnants and priority sage grouse habitat. When an operator acquires an oil and gas lease like this, the public’s interest is deemed to be satisfied only if the operator commences actual drilling operations. This is a requirement of their lease agreement with the BLM. Failure to do so invalidates the agreement.
The primary term of oil and gas lease is 10 years, yet this operator has maintained a grip on these leases for more than two decades, effectively holding public land hostage. Zombie leases like this need to be stopped; they are a maddening example of why our national oil and gas program needs not only updating but revolution.
The new federal policies that the Bureau of Land Management has recently proposed is a start. I applaud the promising package of updates for oil and gas leasing across hundreds of millions of acres of our shared lands.
But they need to go further. The updates could better protect threatened numerous national parks that are situated in regions with dense oil and gas development, and essential wildlife habitat and migration corridors threatened by encroaching drilling operations. This is a big-picture step in the right direction, but only one step.
I recognize that there’s a need for energy. We’re all consumers in some way, tethered and dependent on the global market network, but no reasonable mind will look at the thick industrialization of the Uinta Basin or Permian Basin and think this is a balanced, well-planned, and sustainable practice. Most importantly, we have to curb the escalating impacts of climate change inflamed by fossil fuels if we want a sustainable planet for future generations.
Taxpayers have bankrolled oil and gas companies for too long under the current program. We must ensure that taxpayers receive a fairer return for the use and development of public lands and align leasing and permitting decisions with its very own conservation goals. If you want to take a stand against reckless oil and gas drilling on public lands, you can submit a comment to the Bureau of Land Management before Sept. 22.
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