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NEVADA VIEWS: Time to reform federal oil, gas lease program

Nevada’s public lands are a treasure worth keeping pristine. From the Ruby Mountains to Red Rock Canyon, the Silver State’s public lands provide unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities, spur economic growth, protect our wildlife, and play a role in keeping our environment clean.

These special places have never been more vital to communities across the country as shutdowns and quarantine brought on by COVID-19 created a surge of new people participating in outdoor recreation as a way to safely get out of the house. Now, they are likely to keep coming back long after the pandemic ends.

But even as more people head outdoors, the current administration is abusing a decades-old oil and gas leasing system that hurts public lands and taxpayers. This system lets oil and gas companies lease public lands in Nevada and across the West for speculative purposes. This occurs even though many of these lands provide drinking water for our communities and important habitat for big game, sage-grouse and other wildlife species, support our growing outdoor recreation economy, and have little or no potential for oil and gas development. Yet it costs taxpayer dollars for the federal government to put them up for lease sales.

Last year, despite opposition from local communities, elected leaders and other local advocates, the Department of the Interior tried to lease more than 1 million acres of public lands in Nevada — all with low or no actual drilling potential. In a state where there are currently no active drill rigs, it should be no shock that barely 6 percent of those acres were leased.

Still, these underwhelming lease sales — which unnecessarily threaten our water, wildlife and recreation resources and cost taxpayers money — have continued. In a sale planned for September, more than 60 percent of the acres scheduled to be offered are on lands with little drilling potential. This sale will also occur amid a global oil market decline that further diminishes the need to lease more public lands for drilling.

In January, to help fix the broken leasing system, I introduced the End Speculative Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2020. This bill would provide a crucial fix by prohibiting the Bureau of Land Management from leasing public lands with low or no potential for development and apply that taxpayer money and staff resources to more useful purposes in the federal budget.

I also support the efforts by my colleagues, including Sens. Jon Tester, Tom Udall and Charles Grassley, who have introduced bills over the past few months that would fix other harmful aspects of the federal leasing program.

We need comprehensive reform, as the status quo will just perpetuate wasteful leasing and continue to threaten our drinking water, wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities. My colleagues and I will continue to work to improve the efficiency of our federal oil and gas leasing program and bring it into the 21st century.

— Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, represents Nevada in the U.S. Senate.

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