Should the States Control Drilling on Public Lands?

No. That’s the answer to the question above.

From Fox News comes the report that Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has proposed to put state governments in charge of the drilling permitting process on federal lands in their states. The proposal is not entirely surprising, and Romney is not the first candidate to support a change in control over oil and gas leases on federal lands. It’s a bad idea for multiple reasons, but let’s move on to the bigger discussion.

I don’t know a lot about the permitting process. When Romney says it takes less than a month for a state to issue a drilling permit, but that the feds need almost a year, I’ll tell you I’m surprised the feds have such a quick turn-around. I’ll also tell you that the federal process is contributing very little, if anything at all, to environmental protection. It’s a paperwork exercise, and that’s it.

I’m not an absolutist when it comes to resource extraction on public lands. I’ve argued that we need to cut timber from federal forests, and I likewise believe that we need to drill for oil and natural gas on public lands. But like my proposal for harvesting federal timber, I believe we need a reasonable and ecologically sound approach to drilling for oil and gas. Protect the Commons: they belong to us all, in perpetuity. Environmental protections should be paramount, and wild lands are completely off limits.

We all know that until new technologies arise, drilling on federal lands is inescapable: We must have reliable and inexpensive sources of energy. And I firmly believe – as I argue all intellectually honest conservationists should – that we have an ethical obligation to produce our energy needs domestically, rather than import our oil (as we do) from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela, and then simply pretend that there isn’t any environmental cost.

But the how, and where, and under what conditions we drill for our oil and natural gas on federal lands, these are technical questions to which I don’t have answers. I’m embarrassed I don’t’ know more about this incredibly important topic: I’ll try and learn more about drilling, but I can’t make any promises. In the meantime, don’t become enamored with the idea of turning the process over to the states, a non-starter for anyone concerned about environmental protections and the integrity of our public lands.


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