In two highly-anticipated oil and gas lease auctions this week, U.S. fossils grabbed more than 51,000 acres (21,000 hectares) of drilling rights near the former boundary of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, but turned a cold shoulder to an area twice the size of Florida that the Trump administration was trying to auction off for development in the Gulf of Mexico.
The results in Utah were “a sign of strong industry demand in a region conservationists have vowed to protect,” Reuters reports. The lease sale “included terrain near the former boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument, whose size was scaled back by the Trump administration last year, as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments,” according to the Bureau of Land Management.
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“This means drilling in these parcels poses a more serious and immediate threat to the landscape and archaeological resources,” said Media Director Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities.
“We won’t sit idly by while [Donald Trump] and Interior Secretary (Ryan) Zinke auction off America’s cultural and public lands heritage to the oil and gas industry,” said Stephen Bloch, legal director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
But Reuters says local officials have been keen to open up leases that they see as one of the only economic opportunities for San Juan County, one of Utah’s poorest. “Oil and gas operations are an important contributor to a diversified county economy, and the county supports leasing as a necessary step toward realizing economic benefits,” said local planner Nick Sanberg.
It was a very different story in the Gulf of Mexico, where fossils bid on only 1% of the territory the government had put up for bids, even with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management offering “discounted royalty rates on the shallower tracts” in an effort to ramp up fossil fuel development, the news agency notes.
Zinke had previously said the auction would be a “bellwether” of industry demand in the region. And in the end, Reuters says companies knew the acreage would carry multi-billion-dollar development costs, and were “tempted by better terms overseas”. The result was a set of winning bids that brought in just US$153 per acre, 35% lower than last year, and a fraction of the royalties on offer before the oil price crash.
Critics said the Gulf of Mexico offer was poorly timed, with U.S. oil and gas setting production records and countries like Brazil and Mexico offering more favourable contract terms. “Offering a nearly unrestricted supply in a low demand market with a cut-rate royalty and almost no competition is bad policy, and an inexcusable waste of taxpayer resources,” the Center for American Progress said in a statement.