Congress should stop trying to diminish public lands
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Weeks before former Congressman Ryan Zinke rode a horse to his new job as secretary of the Interior, the House leadership’s agenda for public lands was starting to become clear.

It began in January with a tweak to the budget process, proceeded with a flurry of bills and congressional resolutions, and is all but certain to be super-charged by President Trump through executive actions.

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The GOP agenda aims to plunder as much of our public lands as possible for fossil fuel development—and if that becomes politically impossible, to hand them over to states or localities to do the dirty work.

 

Exhibit A is an arcane rule change designed to undervalue the lands themselves. Pushed through by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRob BishopOvernight Energy: GOP moves to reform Endangered Species Act GOP takes aim at reforming Endangered Species Act Favoring some of Puerto Rico's creditors over others a mistake Congress should avoid MORE (R-Utah), it would require the Congressional Budget Office to ignore the fiscal impact of land sales. Lost revenue from grazing fees, timber sales, and mineral royalties would no longer be considered when calculating the cost to taxpayers of land giveaways.

Although Bishop would claim that warnings of an impending land sale were overblown, it only took another few weeks for Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzGuess who’s stumping for states' rights? GOP Rep. Gowdy slams Trump team for 'amnesia' on Russia meetings California Dem sworn in as House member after delay MORE (R-Utah) to introduce legislation calling for the sale of a Connecticut-sized chunk of public land.

The controversy was immediate, especially in the West, and Chaffetz abandoned his own bill. Curiously, the outcry didn’t register with Bishop, who is officially requesting $50 million in the budget to offset losses to taxpayers from land transfers beginning next year.

Next came the Congressional Review Act, a powerful tool that Congress is using to reverse Obama-era regulations. Everything from gun control to digital privacy is in danger, but some of the most substantial targets are protections for public lands.

Last week, in a move widely seen as favoring fossil fuel development, the Senate cleared a resolution decreasing the input of local communities into land use planning. Even as support among the GOP is eroding, congressional leaders are pushing to end an Obama administration regulation that charges royalties for natural gas flaring and venting—a problem expected to cost taxpayers $800 million over the next decade.

More votes could be on the horizon. The notoriously fossil-friendly Western Caucus has a hit list of regulations it would like to see reversed under the Congressional Review Act. Stiffer civil penalties for oil companies lying about royalty payments, new standards to ensure that oil and gas from public lands is accurately measured, and protections against oil drilling in national parks are all potentially in the cross-hairs.

But the final plank of the agenda is the executive branch, where the damage has only just begun.

In a move that could prove illegal, the Interior Department froze implementation of a regulation to keep coal companies from cheating taxpayers. The so-called “valuation rule” is mainly meant to stop companies from dodging royalties by selling minerals through internal subsidiaries. Reversing it could send coal companies and other polluters as much as $85 million a year.

But the biggest attack is expected very soon: the lifting of the moratorium on federal coal leasing and a review of the entire coal program.

Coal mined from public lands is arguably the starkest example of corporate welfare in the country. For decades, the program has handed some of the world’s largest coal companies minerals at less than fair market value. Thanks to gimmicks like royalty-relief and no-bid lease expansions, the effective rate for public coal is only 4.9 percent, well below the statutory minimum of 12.5 percent for surface mines.

This is a raw deal for taxpayers, but also for the climate. The program is responsible for a full 13 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions. Putting a moratorium on new coal leases is one of the most important pieces of Obama’s climate legacy.

The GOP plans are undoubtedly extreme. But it cannot be emphasized enough that they are very unpopular. While the fossil fuel industry certainly feels entitled to the minerals beneath our lands at giveaway prices, most Americans put a higher value on our natural heritage. Recent polling confirms that majorities across the West oppose land sales and oppose expanding extraction on public lands, which means the good news is that everyone is seeing through the plans proposed by GOP leaders.

Lukas Ross is a climate and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, a global network representing more than two million activists in 75 different countries. Previously he was a research fellow at the Oakland Institute, a California-based think tank specializing in land investment and sustainable agriculture. He holds a masters in politics from Cambridge University, England, and a joint degree in international relations and film studies from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.


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