This Land is Their Land


October 20, 2005


Browse in Environment

There is a grim symmetry to the gasoline act that recently passed the House of Representatives, in particular the provision to make old military bases available for oil refineries. Take land once used to defend the nation, and use it to feed the habit that makes much of that defense necessary.

That’s the dance that has defined much of the Bush Administration: oil, defense, and then more oil. In this the public lands – our lands – have played a central role. Much as junkies rob their mothers’s purses, the Administration and Congress have been pilfering the public lands to help the oil industry string the nation out a little longer.

The Administration says the nation is becoming more secure but in reality it is becoming less so. The more oil we use, the more dependent on foreign sources we become, which means the more dependent on the military we become. No deposits in prospect – either in Alaska or anyplace else – are going to change that equation. The more we drill, the deeper into the hole we go. A cynic would say that’s the point. A realist could say that too.

The new House bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, is basically a Right Wing revenge fantasy, and a wet dream to boot. Old military bases aren’t the only public lands that would be available for refineries. Wildlife refuges and roadless areas in National Forests also would be up for grabs. The bill is unclear as to whether oil companies would pay for the lands and if so how much. But even if the companies do have to bid, once lands are designated for refineries the number of prospective bidders would be small. It’s a sweetheart deal either way.

Plus, taxpayers would have to compensate companies for any delays caused by environmental lawsuits and the like. Commoners pay, polluters get.

Vertical integration used to refer to the way the oil companies controlled every step in the product chain from drilling rig to the gas pump. Now the public lands are becoming petro-lized in similar fashion. Drilling still of course is the major focus. The attempt to bust open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has gotten most of the attention, but in reality the Administration has been grabbing everywhere. Just last month, the Bureau of Land Management released 250, 000 acres for oil and gas development in the heart of New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, which is the site of a massive fresh water aquifer.

The Environmental Working Group has found that oil and gas companies, along with mining companies, now control land in more than two-thirds of the nation’s 1855 parks, forests, wilderness areas and the like, or within five miles of these. At present rates of leasing and development, moreover, within twenty years the bulldozers will be at work in or near every single one. The National Park Service might as well replace Smokey the Bear with an Exxon Oil sign.

The industry persists in blaming the nation’s energy woes on the way the public lands are “locked up.” But the industry itself increasingly holds the keys. The result has been, as EWG points out, just 53 days worth of oil and about seven months worth of natural gas over the last fifteen years. Even ANWAR, for which the industry is in a priapic heat, would produce less that two percent of America’s daily consumption when production peaks – and that won’t happen until 2027.

That’s the supply side. The Administration is using the public lands to boost the demand side as well. It has thrown them open to gas-burning vehicles, for example. The Clinton Administration tried to eliminate skimobiles from Yellowstone National Park. Bush has reversed that policy. In winter they come by the thousands. The air now gets so bad that park rangers have to wear respirators (and ear protectors as well.) Denali National Park in Alaska has become more accommodating to snowmobiles too.

(The typical two-stroke engine used in snowmobiles puts as much muck into the air in seven hours as a passenger car does in 100,000 miles. Yet the Administration has resisted emission standards, even though manufacturers could meet tough rules with technology already available.)

Theodore Roosevelt, who established much of today’s national park system, used to hike around in winter on foot. The Bush crowd basically isn’t willing to get out of the car.

It isn’t just snowmobiles. All kinds of off road vehicles are taking over. The Big Cyprus National Preserve in Florida for example was established to keep scenery and wildlife “unimpaired for future generations.” Its founding act requires that conservation take priority over recreation. Yet today there are more than 23,000 miles of routes for swamp buggies and the like.. Whoever thinks these don’t impair scenery and wildlife hasn’t been close to one as it roared by.

The more oil we burn on public lands, the more the industry says we have to drill from them. Lest park managers question that scenario, the Bush Administration has established what amounts to a loyalty test for all top positions. In the past the Park Service has been a decentralized agency; and the dedication of park rangers has been one result. Now all park superintendents and assistant superintendents must be cleared by political appointees in Washington.

And lest any of us owners want to weigh in on the use of our own land, the Administration has embraced a policy called “categorical exclusion” that attempts to cut us out entirely. (A federal court has put this policy on hold, which prompted the Administration to claim that Boy Scouts, not oil companies, were the targets of the environmentalist effort.)

The national parks and protected public lands are a marvel of foresight. They are a nest egg for our posterity, a refuge from the relentless engines of our economy, a place where our kids and grandkids can go to enjoy one of the great blessings of liberty that the Preamble to the Constitution promises to them – the blessing of peace and quiet, and the liberty to stand undisturbed amidst the gifts of creation.

Now these lands are being used to impoverish the very people they belong too – that is, us. Instead of a refuge, they are turning into thoroughfares for the very thing they are supposed to be a refuge from. Instead of a nest egg, they are being used to promote our debt. If this were happening to oil company lands, the company lawyers would be screaming about a “taking.” They’d be demanding compensation. But because it’s happening to our lands, Congress calls it “Gasoline for America’s Security.” What’s theirs is theirs and what’s ours is theirs too.

This isn’t just junkie thinking. It’s the mentality of a five year old. Use it up, drain America first, and leave tomorrow for someone else to worry about. I have a feeling that those who will inhabit that tomorrow will regard this as neither wise nor brave.