Lots of people say they are conservationists but few are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Not so Terry and Brooke Williams. According to Wikipedia, Terry is an American author, conservationist, and activist. Her writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah and its Mormon culture. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women’s health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.
Last February, Terry and Brooke purchased two oil and gas leases from the Bureau of Land Management. Both leases are on land not far from their home in Utah. The bidding process failed to bring the $2.00 per acre price BLM hoped to get. The Williams’ winning bid was $1.50 per acre. The two leases cover 1,120 acres north of Arches National Park, which means the couple would have to pay the federal government $1,680 annually once the leases are issued.
BLM Refuses To Issue Leases
But the leases haven’t been issued. The Bureau of Land Management is in a dither because the Williams’ are notorious in Utah for their conservationist activities. They have said publicly that if there is any oil or gas under the ground they have leased, they intend to leave it there. That has prompted the Interior Department to refund the Williams’ money and withhold the leases.
“A primary requirement of the Mineral Leasing Act is that the lessee of an oil and gas lease be reasonably diligent in developing its lease. Ms. Terry Tempest Williams of Tempest Exploration indicated on several occasions that the company has no intention of developing the two leases. BLM, therefore, had little choice other than to deny the lease offers,” said an agency spokesman.
The Utah couple say they are evaluating legal options to challenge the decision. “We are disappointed in the agency’s decision to hold us to a different standard than other lessees,” they said in a news release. “The BLM has never demanded that a lease applicant promise to develop the lease before it was issued. In fact, a great many lessees maintain their leases undeveloped for decades, thereby blocking other important uses of the lands such as conservation and recreation.”
In fact, wilderness conservation foundations sometimes pay millions of dollars for existing leases in order to protect land from development. Many corporations and individuals acquire drilling rights on leases that don’t get developed for a variety of reasons.
Williams’ Have A Plan
Tempest and Brooke formed an LLC called Tempest Exploration to manage the leases. They say they want to use the leases to inspire changes in how the federal government distributes drilling rights to publicly owned hydrocarbon resources.
“Our purchase was more or less spontaneous, done with a coyote’s grin, to shine a light on the auctioning away of America’s public lands to extract the very fossil fuels that are warming our planet and pushing us toward climate disaster,” Tempest Williams wrote in a March 29 op-ed published in The New York Times. “The energy we hope to produce through Tempest Exploration is not the kind that will destroy our planet, but the kind that will fuel moral imagination.”
That essay prompted the BLM’s acting state director, Jenna Whitlock, to send a letter to the couple asking them to explain their interest and ability to produce oil and gas from the leases.
“We have made clear to the BLM that we would consider developing our leases when science supports a sustainable use of the oil and gas at an increased value, given the costs of climate change to future generations,” the Terry and Brooke wrote in response. “This is the same approach used by oil and gas companies that routinely base their exploration and development decisions on the price of oil and other market factors and often hold their leases for years without drilling,” the couple says.
Under federal law, any adult citizen of the United States may obtain and hold a federal oil and gas lease. In August, the couple wrote to the BLM, saying “requiring us to drill on our leases is a condition that is unique to us that does not apply to the others who purchased leases that day with no intention of drilling.”
But according to BLM’s Utah state director, Ed Roberson, federal law requires those who hold leases to “exercise reasonable diligence in developing and producing, and [they] must prevent unnecessary damage to, loss of, or waste of leased resources.” The Williams’ expressed intent to not develop the leases “would directly conflict with the diligent development requirement and require that the offer be rejected,” he said in a letter to the couple last week.
BLM Treats Others Differently
According to a recent report by The Wilderness Society, hundreds of oil and gas leaseholders have failed to begin developing millions of acres of BLM leases within the 10 year window specified by law. In many cases, the agency grants suspensions that can last for years, even decades, with the leaseholders often not paying rent during that time. 30% of the agency’s suspended leases covering nearly a million acres are located in Utah.
“The BLM has been willing to extend these undeveloped leases in perpetuity, yet the agency put our bids under a microscope,” the Williams’ statement reads. “The BLM’s decision to reject our lease bids highlights the agency’s misdirected and antiquated approach to fossil fuels, illuminating their fidelity to the oil and gas industry while willfully ignoring the urgency — in an era of climate change — of more enlightened management of the public lands that belong to the American people.”
If Donald Trump becomes president, there won’t be any more public lands. All of them will be handed over to private companies hell bent on extracting every molecule of fossil fuel still available in America. Terry and Brooke Williams are shouldering more than their share of the load when it comes to fighting against climate change.
While BLM may be correct about what the law specifies, if the government treats some citizens differently than others, that is a clear violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. To protect our public lands from exploitation by fossil fuel interests, be sure to vote responsibly on November 8.
Source and photo credit: Salt Lake Tribune.