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Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region | CC BY 2.0

For decades our public lands have been exploited by oil and gas companies and the price these greedy developers are paying for the right to drill continues to plunge. A recent analysis by Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reveals that since 1983, the per acre price for oil drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico dropped by nearly 96% — from over $9,000 to a meager $391. POGO notes that this precipitous decline has saved Big Oil billions of dollars in their Gulf of Mexico leases alone.

Of course, Donald Trump wants to expand this oil bonanza, opening our vast, publicly owned oceans to offshore drillers. Sadly, he’s just following Barack Obama’s broken energy path. Oil production on public lands during Obama’s tenure increased by almost 60 percent. So much land was offered up to the extraction industry that much of it, even when offered at bargain-basement prices, went unsold. Between 2009 and 2015, 22 million acres of Bureau of Land Management parcels received no bids for development while 6.7 million were tapped.

Graph courtesy of The Center for Western Priorities.

It’s a travesty that dates back to the Reagan Era, where public assets were increasingly stuffed into the pockets of private companies. In the case of off-shore drilling, Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt implemented the so-called “area-wide leasing” program which opened up whole areas, like the entire Central Gulf of Mexico, to bidding. No longer were select parcels put up for auction, instead, whole swaths of land were sold off. These larger leases meant it was more difficult to conduct thorough environmental reviews, making it easier for the drillers to bleed our natural resources. Thirty years later, Obama moved to expand Reagan’s “area-wide leasing” program in the Gulf with his five-year leasing plan which was introduced in 2016.

Trump isn’t bashful about taking Obama’s pursuit for increased drilling even further by opening up all offshore waters, perhaps even Florida, despite his promise to leave the Sunshine State off the driller’s list.

Not only will offshore drilling likely increase under Trump in sensitive places like Alaskan waters, it will happen for pennies on the dollar. Even when companies decide to not drill on the land they lease at auction, public lands are so dirt cheap they can afford to “rent” their parcels until they decide if they are even worth exploring. It’s all by design. The Interior Department has been a sham for years, with “success” marked by the number of auction sales, not the number of acres managed in our best interest.

Sec. Ryan Zinke only amplifies the corruption at the Department that’s long been dominated by the fossil fuel industry. Trump’s own advisors are continuing to push for opening up oil and gas exploration on lands that are now off limit to oil development like Bears Ear National Monument, and even Native American Reservations, which hold about one-fifth of the nation’s oil reserves – an estimated $1.5 trillion.

“This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance,” said Sec. Zinke on Trump’s plan to drill, baby drill. “And under President Trump, we’re going to have the strongest energy policy, and become the strongest energy superpower. And we certainly have the assets to do that.”

Despite Zinke’s assertion that Trump will ensure the US will become an energy superpower, The Donald is simply riding a wave of oil and natural gas that Obama set into motion.

When Obama took office in 2008 the US was producing 5 million barrels of crude per day, by 2013 that number shot up to 7 million bpd. Fracked oil in North Dakota was largely responsible for the US’s increased output. Sure, Obama talked tough when it came to curbing carbon emissions. He signed international climate deals, the same ones Trump has turned his back on, yet it was under Obama that we saw an almost exponential boom in oil and gas production across the country. No doubt Obama’s embrace of fracking largely undermined his alleged commitment to tackling global warming.

Graph courtesy of The Center for Western Priorities.

While carbon emissions dipped slightly under Obama — CO2 emissions plateaued globally (they are rising again) — methane emissions, which actually are more fast-acting when it comes to warming our atmosphere, did not drop. Not only that, but the US is still one of the top five greenhouse gas emitters in the world and our per capita emissions are right at the top. Additionally, Climate Action Tracker believes that because there wasn’t stronger regulatory action under Obama, the US will miss its climate commitment “by a large margin.”

Indeed, a simple look at the numbers prove Obama’s “green” climate change legacy is a farce.

Methane emissions under Obama are significantly higher than previously thought. The EPA increased their estimate of US methane emissions by 30% in 2013. That’s likely still not close to reality. Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, believes the EPA isn’t telling the entire story of methane emissions and estimates that upwards of 2.5% of all natural gas running through pipes in the US is leaking. Other scientists believe the EPA is likely underestimating methane emissions by 25-75%.

On top of all of that, in 2015 the US ended its ban on exporting crude oil and by October 2017, we were exporting a record high 1.7 million barrels of oil a day. The same was true for fracked gas. On Obama’s watch, we became a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in 60 years. So while the US claimed to be spewing less climate-warming pollutants, we were simultaneously helping the world emit more.

Of course, Trump won’t be reversing this trend (Hillary wouldn’t have either), but we ought to at least give the Democrats their due credit for allowing the oil and gas industry to thrive despite the fact that, along with coal, it is one of the very industries responsible for destroying our planet’s delicate climate.

The big kicker? These bastards are making out like bandits at our expense, on our public lands and nobody in power, on either side of the aisle, is going to do a damn thing to stop it.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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