Parks vs. Profits

Energy companies eye federal lands

Thomas P. Healy

—On the weekend of the worst power outage in the nation’s history, 32 governors of the United States converged on the Hoosier capital for socializing and policymaking.

Energy, education and the economy led the agenda of the 95th annual meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) from August 16-19. But the few dozen protesters in the police-designated “free-speech zone” outside the Marriott hotel had another issue: they charged the governors with discussing public policy in private with corporate lobbyists.

Research and support to governors is provided by the NGA’s nonprofit arm, the Center for Best Practices, which is funded by foundation grants and dues from 100 “Corporate Fellows,” including major energy companies: American Electric Power, ConocoPhillips, DTE Energy, and Exelon/PECO Energy.

NGA Executive Director Ray Scheppach denied any behind-the-scenes deal making. “We have kicked out organizations that have unfairly lobbied,” he said. Nevertheless, he admitted, “Some of it is legitimate criticism. We have discussed whether the corporate fellows program should be expanded to other groups,” such as organized labor, small business and environmental groups.

The impact of corporate interests on the governors was evident in the limited range of discussion about the use of public lands by private companies seeking natural gas.

Vicky A. Bailey, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy, told members of the NGA’s Natural Resources Committee that domestic electrical consumption is projected to increase 36 percent by 2025. To meet the increased demand, she said, “coal and natural gas will provide three-quarters of our electricity.”

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a keynote presenter, also addressed the natural gas shortage. She noted that the Department of the Interior “controls nearly one out of every five acres in the country” and that Interior-managed lands produce about a third of the nation’s oil, natural gas, and coal. Citing the “dramatic impact” of soaring natural gas prices on home utility bills and industrial users, she declared that it requires “moving from a regulatory approach to a market approach and quickly finding more domestic sources.”

Such rhetoric bolsters the League of Conservation Voters’ recent contention that the primary beneficiaries of the administration’s environmental actions have been timber, mining, oil and gas industries, and real estate development companies.

Attorney Patricio Silva serves as the Midwest activities coordinator for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He notes that in the last two decades more than 60 percent of all federal public lands have been opened to leasing and that environmental regulations are routinely waived as hardships for industry.

Companies often refrain from leasing lands, says Silva, because of economic and physical restrictions rather than legal protections. “Environmental regulations have never hindered accessing the large natural gas deposits in the Rocky Mountains,” he says. “[These are] incredibly isolated areas that will require building hundreds of miles of roads. That’s why there hasn’t been a lot of drilling; infrastructure is too costly.”

No matter what happens to public lands, the United States will have to import increasing quantities of natural gas, he says. “That’s the unfortunate reality about the natural gas shortage.”

But is there a shortage at all? Environmentalists argue that conservation and renewable non-fossil fuel technologies are the way to cope with rising electricity demands. While industrial corporations are by far the largest and dirtiest consumers of electrical power, they also can effectively lobby for environmental deregulation. So, consumers will likely bear the brunt of any public relations blitz to reduce electricity use.

Meanwhile, companies like those that fund the NGA, used to cheap and plentiful energy supplies, will continue to lobby for opening federal lands to the extractive industries.

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