Sunday, October 07, 2012

Purchasing public policy

Last week it was announced that the Trust for Public Land had entered into an agreement with Plains Exploration & Production Company to purchase oil and gas leases on 58,000 acres of land in the Wyoming Range. Once the $8.75 million transaction is complete, federal officials will permanently retire the leases.

This is the latest in what appears to be an increasing trend involving an exchange of money for public policy on public lands.

For example in order to ease the way for development of the 33,000-acre Jonah natural gas field, EnCana and BP America put up a $24.5 million “monitoring and mitigation fund” that is substantially supervised by the very agencies that are supposed to be providing a critical analysis of these development activities. Grazing permittees were quietly pushed off their allotments so what was once a multiple-use area is now a single-use area. But putting up the money was a successful strategy, so when it came time to develop the Pinedale Anticline gas field, Ultra, Shell and Questar put up $36 million into a similar fund, again with oversight from the agencies.

When El Paso Corp. proposed its $3 billion Ruby Pipeline that would traverse western states, it quieted the radical environmental opposition by cutting a deal to set aside $22 million in conservation trusts, with the money to be used to buy out federal livestock grazing permits. That’s right – one industry agreed to fund a third-party attack another industry in order to get their project approved.

El Paso’s deal would end up costing it even more money. When western county commissioners and state officials got word of the deal, they raised an even bigger stink, and El Paso’s response was to throw even more money around. To quiet the offended, El Paso agreed to establish a $15 million endowment with the stated purpose of promoting grazing on public lands. This new trust fund is managed by the Public Lands Council, a national organization representing public lands ranchers.

But the idea of using money to influence public policy goes back even further. Over the last decade we’ve seen bighorn sheep advocates make back-door deals with domestic sheep producers where producers are paid to remove their herds from public lands. These “willing seller” deals are then rubber-stamped by federal agencies that then institute permanent closures of those grazing allotments, regardless of the line of ranchers that would have liked the opportunity to lease the allotments for their own herds.

In many cases, members of the public participate in federally-mandated planning processes, providing thoughtful comment and investing in collaborative efforts designed to work through the difficult issues involved in providing for a variety of resources and uses of public lands. Should a group with money be able to step in and fund their desired outcome?

Setting aside views on the merits of the specific projects mentioned, is this really how we should be creating public policy? He who has the most money gets what he wants? What about the federal mandate for multiple use of public lands, requiring thoughtful planning and inclusion of uses rather than this nonsense, much of which takes place without public scrutiny. Is it really too outrageous to believe that we can sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations by managing all the uses of the land, even providing for our national energy security and stability of local communities?

It seems like the easy way out of conflict situations, but I am betting this cash-only public policy does not result in healthy ecosystems, or the sustainability of communities.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

Money can obviously bring "good" or "bad" results; what it cannot do is build consensus. It shortcuts necessary debate.

The temptation for "enviros" and energy companies alike is to applaud when the money gets results desired by the one doing the applauding, but it shortcuts coalitions, bipartisanship, aisle crossing, persuasion, and the difficult necessity in a democratic society of convincing others.

Which leads I suspect to what we have now. I'm with Cat.