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<span class="articleLocation”>President-elect Donald Trump aims to open up
federal lands to more energy development, tapping into a
long-running and contentious debate over how best to manage
America’s remaining wilderness.
The U.S. government holds title to about 500 million acres
of land across the country, including national parks and
forests, wildlife refuges and tribal territories stretching from
the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. They overlay billions of
barrels of oil and vast quantities of natural gas, coal, and
With Trump poised to take office on Jan. 20, energy
companies and their lobbyists are eyeing a new gusher of federal
drilling and mining leases after a period of stagnation under
the administration of Barack Obama.
Oil output on federal land made up about a fifth of the
national total in 2015 – down from more than a third in 2010 –
while the number of onshore drilling leases fell about 15
percent, according to federal data.
“This opportunity is unique, maybe once in a lifetime,” said
Jack Gerard, president of the Washington D.C.-based American
Petroleum Institute lobby group, referring to prospects for
increased access to federal leases.
The hoped-for land run by energy companies, however, could
get bogged down by lawsuits and lobbying from environmental
groups and some local residents.
“It would only take one serious mistake – one well to go bad
– for our town’s water supply to be damaged,” said Josh Ewing,
the leader of a southern Utah conservation group.
Energy firms have their allies in the rural areas, too, who
would welcome an economic jolt.
“We can’t maintain our families here because there are no
jobs,” said Bob Turri, a former officer with the U.S. Bureau of
Land Management in southern Utah, surrounded by millions of
acres of pristine federally managed forest. “That’s the only
hope we have left, is what Trump may be able to do for us.”
Trump had campaigned on a promise to open up federal lands
to increased development. He accused Obama of “denying millions
of Americans access to the energy wealth sitting under our feet”
by restricting leasing and banning new coal extraction.
In December, Trump nominated U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke
of Montana, who backs coal mining on federal lands, to lead the
Interior Department. Officials for Zinke and Trump declined to
Trump has vowed to lift the coal moratorium – imposed in
2016 as part of Obama’s broader plan to combat climate change –
within 100 days of taking office.
Separately, a coalition appointed by Trump’s team to guide
his Native American policy is researching proposals to ease
energy development on tribal lands – including the controversial
idea of transferring them to private ownership.
While efforts to boost industry access to public lands would
likely trigger lawsuits and protests, it could win broad support
in a Congress now firmly in Republican control after November’s
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining
Association, said he expected some of Trump’s planned moves to
be easy, including reversing Obama’s coal ban.
“Happily, just as it was created with the stroke of a pen,
it can be as easily rescinded,” he said. “That is our hope and
Other efforts to undo Obama’s legacy could be harder.
“AT YOUR PERIL”
In his final weeks in office, Obama designated about 1.6
million acres in Utah and Nevada as national monuments, using
the 1906 Antiquities Act that lawyers say could be complicated
to reverse. The move was a parting gift to Native American
groups and conservationists.
Obama also banned new drilling in federal waters in parts of
the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans using a 1950s-era law that
environmental groups say would also require a drawn out court
challenge to reverse.
Republican lawmakers have promised to fight the moves.
For some, the potential for expanded drilling signals
economic revival. Others see more value in the land itself than
the resources beneath it.
One of the areas that Obama granted monument status last
month is Bears Ears, a pair of iconic flat-top hills soaring out
of ponderosa pine forests in Utah.
Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo spiritual advisor for Utah Diné
Bikéyah, a group representing five tribes, surveyed the
landscape recently as he piloted his SUV down a dirt road.
“What would happen if we lose this?” he asked. “Where are we
going to go?”
The area, he said, is central to the Navajo creation story
and a symbol of his ancestors’ ability to listen to and heed
spiritual guidance. It is also rich in minerals and petroleum,
and Yellowman said tribes are bracing for Trump to try to reopen
the land to development.
“If that happens, we’re here to stand against it,” he said.
EOG Resources – a Texas-based company recently
approved to drill near Bears Ears – declined to comment.
Native American protesters and their supporters recently won
a major battle against encroaching energy interests in North
Dakota, blocking a federal permit for a pipeline after months of
protests. Other tribes, however, have pursued
energy development as a critical source of income.
Nearly 2,000 miles east of Bears Ears, in Ohio’s Cuyahoga
Valley National Park, a similar debate is playing out.
The 330,000-acre federal park is one of a handful that
already allows drilling because it contains areas with privately
owned mineral rights, or “split estates”. Many of the park’s
visitors are unaware of the industry’s presence.
Gregory Violand, a 65-year-old actor who performs at a
playhouse on park grounds – two miles from a gas well surrounded
by chain-link fencing – said he supports drilling on federal
lands, if done responsibly.
“The property owners are benefiting,” he said.
Deb Yandala disagreed. As CEO of the CVNP Conservancy
advocacy group, she said many people would oppose efforts to
expand drilling and mining rights. “Water quality is a huge
issue for Cuyahoga Valley,” she said.
Tim McCormack, a nearby resident, said the issue would be
divisive. “There is going to be a profound debate,” he said. “You cannot fool with the National Park system. You can at your
(additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici)
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