Teapot Dome Redux
Nothing suspicious here:
The Bush administration has moved ahead with its plan to auction oil and gas leases on environmentally sensitive lands in Utah, reaping millions of dollars from broad swaths of lands near a national monument.
A detailed analysis of the leases auctioned to date, conducted by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that opposed the leases, found that they encompass dozens of critical wildlife habitats that are now open for development. In many cases, the leases were purchased by contributors to President Bush’s reelection campaign.
Although the federal government routinely auctions oil and gas leases on federal land, this series of sales represents only the second time in five years that it has done so on land it had previously determined to be wilderness quality.
The auction has attracted the attention of more than 100 members of Congress, who wrote Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton last month asking her to hold off selling leases on tracts in areas eligible to be protected as wilderness.
The environmental group also calculated, based on federal lease sales in 2000, that the land leased to oil and gas companies in Utah would yield average revenue of $80 an acre a year, raising questions about whether the government got enough value from leases that sold for an average price of $20 an acre for the first year, with a subsequent payment of $2 an acre each year afterward.
“They’re essentially giving land to people who are influential with their contributions,” said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who questioned Norton on the sales during an appropriations committee hearing last week. “If you put drilling rigs on it or if you build roads for it, it no longer qualifies for [wilderness] designation.”
All 14 parcels of land available were leased at the February auction, with some going for just $5 an acre.
The acreage included seven Mexican spotted owl habitats, 12 golden eagle habitats and four peregrine falcon habitats, the Environmental Working Group’s analysis found. Of the plots that have been leased or are scheduled to be leased, 27 contain sensitive floodplain areas, the group said, and five plots leased in November are in areas on which oil and gas exploration could contaminate the Colorado River system.
Four groups dominated the recent bidding: Retamco Operating Inc., a Montana-based company; Tidewater Oil & Gas Co., of Colorado; Baseline Minerals Inc., an Arizona-based company; and the Utah-based Thames River LLC.
Retamco ranked as the biggest player in the most recent auction, paying $600,000 for leases in February alone. Its chairman, Stephen Gose of Montana, gave the maximum allowable contribution of $2,000 to Bush last year, as did his wife. Retamco placed fourth in the 2002 election cycle among Montana’s top donors of unregulated “soft money,” giving $7,050 to Republicans.
Gose said environmentalists were overreacting in criticizing the recent leasing of Utah lands.
“You need to be able to drill on state and federal lands,” Gose said. “You don’t harm it that much anyway.”
Gose praised the Bush administration for making his company’s oil and gas exploration work possible. He described the Clinton administration — which had sought to protect the lands — as “beholden to the extreme conservationists.”
We’ve got to get us a new President…fast.