Even if you’ve never been to the vast red-rock desert country around Moab, Utah, you’ve been there—its mesas and buttes, its towering arches, have been the backdrop for a thousand movies (and even more S.U.V. commercials). It’s what we think about when we think about “the West,” a truly mythic place. Some of it has been protected in national monuments and parks: Arches and Canyonlands. But the fate of a large swath of it, though nominally belonging to the American people, may soon fall to a guy named Craig Larson.
Here’s the story so far. Under a long-standing law known as the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, anyone can “nominate” a parcel of federal land for oil-and-gas development—it doesn’t cost a thing. The rules are so lax that you don’t even have to supply your name if you want to nominate a piece of land, but Prairie Hills Oil & Gas did provide at least that much context when it asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to set aside land between Arches and Canyonlands. Prairie Hills Oil & Gas, of North Dakota, it turns out, is headquartered at a home that Larson, an attorney, co-owns in Big Lake, Minnesota, about forty miles northwest of Minneapolis. After the land is nominated, and certain review processes are completed, the B.L.M. moves to set up a lease auction, which, in the case of Larson and Utah, is scheduled for September. (Although Larson has nominated the parcels, anyone, in fact, could be the ultimate winning bidder.)
The minimum competitive bid for an acre is two dollars, and that’s often the price it goes for in areas like Moab—the prospects are far from guaranteed. The lease has a term of ten years, and, after the gavel comes down, the annual rental fee per acre would be a dollar and a half for the first five years, and two dollars for the second. As Steve Bloch, of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, explained it to me, “If Company A buys a hundred-acre lease, they will write B.L.M. a check for five hundred and twenty dollars.” That would include the bid, the first-year rental rate, and an administrative fee. If the company drills for oil and gas, it also pays the government a royalty of 12.5 per cent on the production, and the lease can be extended.
I recently called Larson to ask him about the company’s plans, and he couldn’t have been more polite or more unhelpful.
“I was curious how it was you decided to ask for those leases,” I said.
“You know, I really don’t have much to add than what we’ve done as far as the nominations,” he answered.
“Are you worried about the local Native American groups? Some have been upset.”
“I don’t really have anything more to say about it other than that our actions are public record.”
“What are the next steps in the disposition?”
“It’s up to the B.L.M. to decide the next steps.”
“Does the current economic environment around oil and gas give you pause?”
“I guess our actions speak for themselves, and I really don’t have much more to add. . . .”
“These aren’t technical or legal questions. I was trying to get at whether you took seriously the things people were raising.”
Larson does not seem like a villain to me here, and he’s done nothing illegal. In fact, what’s preposterous is how entirely legal it all is. The law itself is the crime—a gift to the oil and gas businesses. It awards the industry chunks of federal land through a process designed to move real estate out of public control as easily as possible. Perhaps you could argue that, a century ago, it was an improvement over the previously unregulated disorder that gave industrialists almost literal free rein over the landscape, in that it provided at least some government oversight. But now?
Now Moab, a city of some five thousand people, makes a lot of money each year from mountain bikers and rafters, from people coming to visit the parks—though not during a pandemic. It’s world-famous for its dark skies; an Instagram capital of Milky Way viewing. Will oil wells flaring off gas help that business? “When you look at that map it just sends chills up your spine,” the chairwoman of the local county council toldBloomberg Law. (She also asked, “Why would you put an oil well in the center of a Picasso or van Gogh?”)
Now the world is awash in oil. The pandemic crash could mean that the planet reached peak oil demand in 2019, and that, as economic recovery follows, any new growth in energy supplies is likely to come from solar and wind power.
And now, above all, the world is overheating, and dangerously; the last thing it needs is more oil. The rivers of the Southwest are perfect examples of the mortal peril we now face. Moab is situated in the Colorado Plateau watershed. In February, a new study showed that, over the past century, the flow of the Colorado River was down by twenty per cent, owing mainly to climate change, and that it could fall another twenty per cent by 2050, if we don’t cut emissions. But, instead, as Bloch told me, the Trump Administration is “putting the Interior Department and B.L.M.’s pedal to the floor to sell as many leases as possible.” (A B.L.M. spokesperson said that the agency “follows its congressional mandate regarding lease sales.”) Indeed, the B.L.M. has scheduled nearly twenty oil-and-gas-lease sales on federal land nationwide through the end of 2020, and the Administration has shrunk the size of wildernesses and national monuments, paving the way for more drilling. It is a classic land rush.